Redefining Masculinity: On Armie Hammer In “Call Me by Your Name”
It’s not a question of if this film will make you cry, but when and how much
There is a “morning after” scene in the new film Call Me by Your Name that follows an extremely elaborate courtship between Elio, played by Timothée Chalamet, and Oliver, played by Armie Hammer. (There won’t be many plot spoilers in this article as much as what could be termed “emotional spoilers,” so just tread carefully until you see the movie.) Director Luca Guadagnino does not show us much of what they do in bed together—because that’s private and that’s for them and we wouldn’t be able to get anything from it just as observers. But we do get a sense of what they might have done sexually based on their behavior the next morning.
Elio is sitting on the bed, and he glances back at Oliver with what looks like slight contempt. It’s the sort of macho look that broadcasts, “Okay, I’ve had you, so now what?” Guadagnino cuts to Oliver, whose face is totally open and totally vulnerable. Oliver knows that Elio has pulled away from him a bit, and this bewilders and saddens him. He tries to smile slightly, and that slight smile is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen in a movie.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Hammer revealed that Guadagnino showed him a few minutes of Debra Winger in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990) to inspire him for this scene, and that was clearly an ideal choice. When I saw this close-up of Hammer’s Oliver trying to smile, I wondered how both director and actor had achieved this look of stirringly non-gendered pain and confusion. To get the very consciously masculine Hammer to show something soft and scared and broken, Guadagnino showed his actor some footage of Winger—a very macho actress—where she looked confused and hurt.
André Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me by Your Name is told from the point of view of Elio, a man who is remembering a summer love affair in his youth. Oliver, the object of his desire, is staying with Elio and his parents in Italy in order to assist Elio’s father. Since it is written in the first person, we get to read about Elio’s obsessive thoughts and feelings in detail, and Oliver necessarily remains somewhat opaque. But in Guadagnino’s film version of the novel—which was scripted by James Ivory and is set in 1983—there is a balance between the points of view of Elio and Oliver, and this balance is achieved by the extraordinarily sensitive way that Guadagnino films the faces and body language of his two lead actors.
When we first see Hammer’s Oliver, he is getting out of a car and he makes a joke about his height (Hammer himself is six foot five). He walks stiffly, and his voice has the exaggerated bass male aggressiveness of Jon Hamm’s Don Draper on Mad Men. But when Oliver flops himself down on his stomach on Elio’s bed, his body looks very open and submissive, and this establishes him visually as Elio’s object of desire. Oliver calls Elio “man” and “buddy” and says, “Later” in a very male 1983 way that sounds unfriendly because it is meant to ward off scrutiny. Sometimes Hammer sounds like a young Robert Redford when Oliver wants to indicate, “I’m masculine and I’m also cerebral,” but this is just a vocal mask beneath another vocal mask.
The feelings between Oliver and Elio start with a kind of surface hostility, and Oliver makes a huge mistake when he tries to signal his interest in Elio with a touch on the shoulder that turns into a brief back rub. Elio recoils from this clumsy male touch. In a courtship, one false or blunt move can delay or even destroy a romantic feeling, and the same could be said for a movie that deals with a courtship. Guadagnino and his two lead actors walk a tightrope with no net here. If they put one foot wrong, the whole movie won’t work, and this generates suspense on multiple levels.
The sun and sensuality of an Italian summer get Oliver and Elio back on track. Oliver allows himself to be dominated by Elio in conversation, and this is followed by a dance scene that has already become famous. Girls ogle Oliver on the dance floor as he grooves to “Lady, Lady, Lady,” a song from the Flashdance soundtrack. (Growing up in the 1980s, my parents would often put the Flashdance soundtrack on in the car, and I would get excruciatingly embarrassed when “Lady, Lady, Lady” came on because the lyrics are so intimate and sexual.) 1980s pop music is an apt auditory setting for this story because so much of that music is so openly emotional and extravagant.
The music changes to the Psychedelic Furs’ song “Love My Way,” and Hammer’s Oliver really lets himself go to it (this excerpted dance sequence has rightly delighted the internet). But Elio looks at Oliver’s dancing with hooded eyes, like a poker player, which reveals his crafty character. He maybe does fall more in love with Oliver when watching him dance to this song, but he would never reveal that on his face. In a fast cut, Elio is suddenly on the dance floor with Oliver, and he does “sexy” moves with his shoulders that look very contained next to Oliver’s goofy abandon. This is the perfect image of both who they are and who they will be to each other.
After the dance, there is a brief moment where Oliver still walks like the Big Man on Campus, but then he lets go and walks much more loosely and almost girlishly. Oliver is this big butch guy whose masculinity is revealed as very much a performance that he is tired of. He would much rather be in flux, gender-wise, and he starts to be as he and Elio very slowly reveal their feelings for each other. About 45 minutes into the movie, there is a key moment where Oliver does his “macho” voice for Elio, and Elio mocks it to his face. Elio reduces this macho voice to grunting nonsense noises, and this seems to free Oliver from his vocal prison. That’s what someone who loves you can do.
In a superbly staged scene where they finally verbally indicate their romantic emotions for each other, Oliver and Elio circle a World War I memorial and behave as if they are underground Resistance fighters who are planning a siege that might get them killed. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” Oliver asks. The emotional danger here is very intense. They are going to need to hide their love, but any wise person knows that to hide your love is really best; if you flaunt your love for another person, the gods might get angry. The stakes could not be higher here, and romantic love thrives on that, which is maybe why so many of our best contemporary film love stories, like Carol (2015) and Moonlight (2016), are between members of the same sex.
Oliver and Elio lay back in the grass together, and Elio says, “I love this, Oliver,” and Oliver says, “What?” and Elio says, “Everything.” And then Oliver takes a pause before saying, “Us, you mean?” The way that Hammer says the line, “Us, you mean?” couldn’t be more furtive or more exciting. Elio kisses Oliver and tries to take the lead physically, but Oliver stops him. There is their age difference to consider (Elio is 17 and Oliver is 24), but Oliver seems mainly just scared to do this openly with a guy. He treats Elio as ethically as possible and makes him wait. After Elio gets a bloody nose, Oliver gives him a secret foot massage, and then he kisses Elio’s foot, and the look on Hammer’s face here can only be described as “ardent.”
This is courtly love between two very smart guys, and when they finally get together at midnight one night to make love, I felt like I shouldn’t be watching what was happening between them; that’s how intimate this scene is. Afterward, Oliver says, “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine,” which is like the moment in Wuthering Heights when Cathy cries, “I am Heathcliff!” They both are fully aware that their romance is finite and doesn’t have long to last.
Elio plays around with a peach and idly ejaculates into it, which is filmed in a very slowed-down, realistic way. Oliver makes another miscalculation when he grabs the peach and tries to eat it. This is the only moment after they sleep together where Oliver makes the mistake of treating Elio like someone who is more experienced. Elio starts to cry with embarrassment, and Oliver has to comfort him. They aren’t one person anymore but two people, and of course sometimes two people aren’t on the same track with each other.
In the novel, Oliver does eat the peach, but his almost eating it in the film works very well because it reveals something about the characters. Lest it should just seem like a gross sexual fetish, here is the extremely romantic way that Elio describes Oliver’s thinking in the book: “I believe with every cell in my body that every cell in yours must not, must never, die, and if it does have to die, let it die inside my body.” (Lines like this are given an, “Oh my God” reading in Hammer’s very urgent audio recording of Aciman’s novel, where the movie Oliver touchingly speaks for Elio.)
Elio’s parents Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Annella (Amira Casar) seem to know what is happening with their son and Oliver, but they tactfully do not meddle. Annella looks enigmatic at first as she watches over Elio and smokes her cigarettes, for she has the same hooded eyes as Elio. On a second viewing of this movie, it became clear to me that Annella not only knows what is happening but that she understands that Oliver is more in love with her son than Elio is with him. The way that Casar gets this across is the ultimate in worldliness and sophistication, in the best possible sense.
It is Annella’s idea that Elio and Oliver should go away together for one more fling, and there are beautiful “time is running out” moments between them where Oliver seems to be memorizing every moment he has left with Elio. All of Oliver’s senses have come alive, and this is shown as very sweet, sexy, and even gently comic. “This!” Oliver cries ecstatically, drunkenly, with emphasis, on his last night with Elio. “This! You!” Call Me by Your Name is a great love story, and it is also a story about the way that Guadagnino’s camera loves and brings out Hammer as an actor who can express joy or inner turmoil with a glance.
The last scenes in Call Me by Your Name are so poignant that even the most hardboiled spectator will be likely to cry. (It’s not if you will cry at Call Me by Your Name, but more like when you will cry and how often.) Guadagnino ends his film with a phone call between Elio and Oliver. It is winter now, and Oliver says he is going to get married. The last shot is a long close-up of Elio’s face as he stares into the fire and the end credits roll. He is destroyed, and tears come out of his eyes, but he lets one of them slide into his mouth, like Barbara Stanwyck at the end of Stella Dallas (1937), and this indicates that he is finding a kind of enjoyment in his pain. Toward the end of this close-up, Elio starts to look very angry, and that’s what the film fades to black on.
Aciman is married to a woman, and he doesn’t believe in labeling sexuality. Guadagnino is gay. Elio and Oliver both seem bisexual, but Elio is likely going to move more toward women as he gets older, while Oliver is probably going to move toward men when he feels like he can. They won’t ever forget what they felt for each other, and maybe you could say that their lives will be ruined because of that.
But maybe what Call Me by Your Name (both novel and film) is saying is that you are lucky if you can have your life ruined by a love affair, if you can feel something with that much intensity. Something of that intensity wasn’t meant to last. But that close-up of Hammer’s face where Oliver tries to smile expresses the grief over that realization as profoundly as any human facial expression I’ve ever seen.