I read a review of the latest Björk album in the Harvard Crimson the other day, written by someone obviously younger than myself who professed that the chief thing she knew of the Icelandic singer before listening to her latest release was that she once wore a weird dress to the Oscars that looked like a swan.
I was heartened by the fact that the writer disclosed this with a clear absence of disdain. However, among the sizeable minority of critics who don’t love the uber-poignant Call Me By Your Name (they exist!), there’s a common denominator of the somewhat irate misreading of the era during which the film’s action takes place: the mid-1980s.
But if the chemistry between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer) and where it leads is what powers this achingly beautiful piece of cinema, it’s arguably director Luca Guadagnino’s faithful re-creation of that ‘80s vibe that amplifies its emotional resonance.
Here are five things that, in one way or another, this movie screams about the 1980s.
It didn’t take long for the internet to make a meme out of Armie Hammer’s inexpert but earnest grooving to the synth-pop “Love My Way” by The Psychedelic Furs.
The use of the new wave song only affirms the movie’s unapologetic nod to the decade it was a hit in but does something more: you have the main characters actually dancing to and delighting in it. But before the scene becomes celebratory, there is angst as Elio studies Oliver from afar, the camera silently namechecking the queer pathos of The Smiths’ anthemic “How Soon Is Now” from 1985 (opening line: “I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar”). Only here, Elio will join the action on the dance floor (and those little outdoor discos were very much a thing in Italy then).
Of course, there’s the song “Visions of Gideon” at the end; as the interrogatory lyric “Is it a video” repeats, the audience sees Elio replaying the love affair in his head. Did all that really happen?
It’s almost as if Guadagnino, who is 46, is blowing a bittersweet kiss to the defining pop culture art form of the 1980s: the music video.
With one notable exception, it’s those shorts. You see a lot them in this movie and, obviously, that’s meant to play to the temperature of an inland Italian village in the languid height of summer: it is hot out, friends.
And no doubt there are legions of moviegoers who would agree that seeing Armie Hammer strutting his stuff in shorts that sometimes veer on short shorts (the actor has said that a shot in one scene had to be digitized to conceal his balls) is also pretty sultry.
Did people once actually wear green or white shorts with dopey stripes running down the sides making them look like truncated 1970s tracksuit pants? Hell to the yes, and paired with white tube socks, thank you very much.
And as for that shirt Elio wears at the very end, it might have drifted in from Nick Rhodes’s closet‘80s New Romantic to the max.
It’s true that André Aciman’s novel Call Me By Your Name, on which the film is based, is set in 1987 and that Guadagnino turned the clock back further to 1983, but you couldn’t ask for a more faithful evocation of Italian country life during that time.
The story of Elio’s coming of age and attraction to grad student Oliver was filmed in Crema in northern Italy, the action unfolding in and around a lovely villa that Elio’s mother had the good fortune to inherit. As such, some critics have lambasted CMBYN as an elitist romance of the rich and out of touch, but that’s not fair. Many Italians have homes in the country, and not all their last names end in Armani.
And let’s not forget that the co-producer and screenwriter here is none other than James Ivory, one half of the 1980s powerhouse duo Merchant Ivory Productions, whose 1985 film version of the 1908 novel A Room with a View not only nabbed three Oscars but had a new generation of Americans dreaming of lazy summers in Tuscany. That that film also treated audiences to more male frontal nudity than CMBYN notwithstanding, the parallels are clear.
It might be nothing more than coincidence, but the mood of Call Me channels that powerful sense of place that the Merchant Ivory films brought to sensuality-deprived 1980s America.
In the ‘80s going to Europe was still a big deal. No low-cost flights or mileage tickets from New York to Rome to keep those long distance relationships alive, meaning goodbye was often definitive. Cue again Italian lassitude and landscapea more fitting backdrop to a secret 1980s Euro-romance would be hard to find.
And of course, no internet or cell phones meant that words meant more. The closing scene would have looked a lot different and packed way less punch had Oliver merely texted Elio a (for example) peach emoji.
In the 1980s, LGBTQ was light years away and even G was rated R. Yes, the 1970s had just happened, but this was a time when some theater audiences actually booed the sight of two homosexual men being homosexual in the 1982 flick Making Love.
And AIDS, the disease that was a dark shadow at the close of the 1970s, was by the 1980s the modern plague. The trauma of AIDS made the stigma of being gay worse and the paralyzing fear of sex trickled down so far that even speaking your feelings, let alone giving them a name, was hard.
To see what Elio and Oliver have, touches anyone who lived through that uneasy time; it reminds us both of possibilities lost, friends who fell, and, maybe through a hot tear or two, of the purity and power of first love.