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What's Missing from 'Call Me By Your Name?' (Reality, Perhaps?)

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Sunday Dec 31, 2017

There's a new film in which young man - barely 18 - has an affair with an older one, an academic who is likely straight. The time is the mid-1980s and the place is a Western European country. It is the younger man's first gay sexual experience. No long after, the two part ways and the young man is left to process the affair.

If you guessed that's a quick synopsis of "Call Me By Your Name," Luca Guadagnino's much-lauded romance, you wouldn't be wrong - that, pretty much, is the bare outline of the film's plot. Yet it is actually a short sequence from "BPM," Robin Campillo's compelling account of ACT UP activism in Paris during the late 1980s. And the young man in question - named Sean (an electrifying Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) - doesn't get a pep talk from his dad and stare with tears in his eyes into a fire when he realizes the affair is over, he becomes very sick when diagnosed with HIV.

Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in "Call Me By Your Name."

Unlike many of my colleagues, I didn't warm to Guadagnino's lush, languid account of an affair between a young musical prodigy and the older American who has comes to mentor under the hand of the boy's father, an antiquities professor summering in northern Italy in 1983. Despite an expressive performance by Timothée Chalamet (who very well may win an Oscar) as the young Elio, Guadagnino's film is a dull story, dully told - a throwback to the kind of glossy romantic melodramas that Hollywood made in the late 1950s. ("Gidget" or some dreadful Sandra Dee romance from that time came to mind.) Like those films it takes place in a hermitically sealed, privileged world in which the real world never intrudes.

Not that there is anything wrong with this kind of old school filmmaking, especially when served up in such a lux package as it is here. (Douglas Sirk made any number of such melodramas whose social and political subtexts still resonate today.) And this film lulls you with its sophisticated conversation (sometimes tri-lingual), gorgeous settings, deft use of classical music, and the charming cat-and-mouse interplay between Elio and Oliver (Armie Hammer). Their interchanges, especially early on, are the best parts of the film. In one Elio shows his prodigious musical skills to Oliver, playing Bach in the style of later composers in a way that's showoffy and playfully seductive. Another has Elio using a peach used as a sex toy, an oddly humorous moment in an otherwise sober film. ("BPM" has a similar sex scene involving masturbation in a hospital room that is far more evocative.)

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart in "BPM."

What's strikingly missing is a social context. Put bluntly in 1983 sexual contact between men, especially an American coming from New York, cannot be considered without a mention of HIV. But between the bucolic breakfasts, numerous trips to the local swimming hole, bicycle rides in picturesque Italian towns and what seemed to be the endless flirtation between Elio and Oliver, there is no mention of the health crisis happening half a world away in Oliver's hometown.

What little controversy the film has engendered is that it follows the love affair between a 17-year old teenager and a 24-year old man. And that the overt sexuality originally found in the screenplay (by James Ivory from André Aciman's acclaimed novel) was mitigated in the final version. But perhaps that was conscious - drawing attention to the sexuality may have made the audience more aware of the consequences of it, in this case the possibility of HIV transmission. Out of sight. Out of mind.

Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet in "Call Me By Your Name."

It would be easy to imagine Elio moving to Paris and becoming one of the activists in "BPM," older and, sadly, embittered by his early sexual encounter. The articulate, volatile and scrappy activists from that film represent a reality that "Call Me By Your Name" ignores, so much so that many believe that it takes place in a time when either HIV (or AIDS) had yet to enter the vocabulary. Reviewing the film in the New York Times, Mahnola Dargis wrote: "'Call Me by Your Name' is set in 1983, so no one is staring into a smartphone. And the time frame means that AIDS doesn't figure in the story, though there's a suggestion that the closet does."

As someone who lived in New York in 1983, it figured into my day-to-day. I remember the anxiety that came with every possible sexual encounter. Fear was palpable - all you needed to do was stroll down the street and see a hunk you remember seeing months earlier happily dancing at the Saint transformed into an emaciated figure walking with a cane. I remember visiting a friend's apartment later in the decade and seeing his address book, its pages black with magic marker from the names of the dead he had crossed out. It wouldn't be out of the possibility that Oliver would be one of those names.

Nahuel Pérez Biscayart and Arnaud Valois in "BPM."

It is not as if the epidemic wasn't being reported in the mainstream media by 1983, especially Ms. Dargis's New York Times. So it's hard not to believe that Elio's parents (played by Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) hadn't read about the epidemic in the pages of the International Herald Tribune and weren't aware of it; yet there is no consciousness of it in their interactions with their son. Instead there's a laudatory speech by Mr. Perlman (Stuhlbarg) that caps the film with the kind of ecumenical blessing more reflective of contemporary attitudes towards being gay than those of the times in which it takes place. (To be fair, he even says he's something of an outlier in his views.) It's hard not to be touched by the scene and Stuhlbarg's exquisite reading of the speech (largely derived from the novel), yet one can only wonder what he would say if sometime later Elio were to be suddenly struck ill from the HIV virus? Would his benevolence turn to rage?

Because I watched "BPM" for the first time later on the same day I watched "Call Me By Your Name," these two stories about being gay in the 1980s are irrevocably linked in my mind. I also understand why "BPM," which is talky and digressive in ways that may turn off some viewers, isn't getting the critical benediction that "Call Me By Your Name" is receiving, or its wide audience. "Call Me By Your Name" is a film for the moment - at last Hollywood embraces a gay romance with two handsome actors in a classy package that is considered award worthy. But don't confuse this tearjerker for reality. Reflecting the behavior of Ronald Reagan, the U.S. president elected shortly before the film takes place, the filmmakers choose to make HIV unmentionable - the disease that dare not speak its name.

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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