“Both are on the cusp of something: Elio is about to enter manhood, and Oliver is letting go of the last impulses of boyhood. In this hazy becoming and un-becoming, they find each other, and what seems to make them different also makes them exactly the same.”
On Call Me By Your Name
In Call Me By Your Name, protagonist Elio is seventeen. Oliver, grad student that comes to intern with his father is twenty-four. These numbers are not important.
Instead, director Luca Guadagnino wants you pay attention to what matters. Sun-dappled swims in the river near Crema, Italy. Sweltering afternoons spent under peach trees. Bike rides up and down the dusty road, from the villa to town and back. In the monotony of summer, there’s nothing to do but fall in love.
So that’s what Elio and Oliver do. The source material is a novel of the same title by André Aciman, a straightforward and agonizingly intimate submersion into the racing pulses and obsessions of first love. This isn’t new territory for a love story, or a coming-of-age story, or a coming out story, but about halfway through, it becomes clear that there is no other shoe waiting to drop. This is surprising, and ultimately a relief. No one is chased by villagers with torches. Neither dies at the end. The film avoids both the majority of queer coming-of-age tropes and blunt references to the relationship’s age gap. In a circuitous way, this absence highlights one of the original novel’s key themes: that love strikes out indiscriminately, regardless of gender, age, or setting.
The ideas of age and gender aren’t completely tossed aside. Elio, played by Timothée Chalamet, is remarkably mature, a side effect of being raised by professors. But he still pouts when the housekeeper patronizes him, and exudes the gangly energy exclusive to boys under the age of twenty. Oliver, played by the dashing Armie Hammer, may be charmingly boyish, but the thirty-one-year-old actor looks and sounds like the fully-grown man he is.
But both are on the cusp of something: Elio is about to enter manhood, and Oliver is letting go of the last impulses of boyhood. In this hazy becoming and un-becoming, they find each other, and what seems to make them different also makes them exactly the same.
This sentiment explains the ‘why?’ but not the ‘what.’ Age gaps in queer relationships are more common than not. A study conducted by the Facebook Data Science team confirmed this in 2014, in a study based on anonymous, aggregated data collected from the platform. For those in their mid-to-early twenties, the average age gap for queer couples is around three to five years, whereas the age gap for straight couples runs closer to two or three years. The disparity becomes much clearer at age thirty: at that point, the gap for queer couples hits almost seven years, the difference between Oliver and Elio. (At thirty, the gap for straight couples finally breaks three years.) Both straight and queer age gaps continue to expand as participants grow older, but the gap for queer couples expands at a much faster rate.
While the data is exclusive to Facebook users and only reflects the trends of the early 2000s, Call Me By Your Name isn’t the first to portray this trend on screen in a period piece. Immediately brought to mind were films like A Single Man (2009, set in the 1960s) and Carol (2015, set in the 1950s), both queer romances centered on partners that greatly differ in age. Less immediately were Beginners and Blue Is The Warmest Color (2010 and 2013, respectively, both set in the early 2000s); Call Me By Your Name is set in the eighties. The portrayal of these relationships across decades seems indicative of a trend throughout history. But categorizing these films as a subgenre of the greater body of queer cinema doesn’t seem accurate compared to the prevalence of the trope.
After all, we hardly designate heterosexual May-to-December romance stories as subgenre films. Then again, it’s also becoming more difficult to tell what counts as an age gap in straight movies—regardless of the age of the characters, the man always seems much, much older than the woman. Ingénues come and go, eternally youthful, while aging actors stick around for decades. Additional essays could be written about age discrimination in Hollywood, especially on the subject of roles for mature women, and we’ve heard from A-listers including Madonna and Meryl Streep. A number of others have spoken out in the past two years with the genuine hope of changing an industry that has been exposed as enabling abusive and degrading behavior, but any lasting effects have yet to be witnessed.
In speaking of Hollywood’s closed doors, it would be difficult to avoid mentioning the unfortunate coincidence that collided with the press tour and release for Call Me By Your Name. One month prior, in September 2017, Kevin Spacey was accused of sexual misconduct by numerous male members of the entertainment industry, with many citing their young age (at the time) and the age gap as a major red flag. The public’s willingness to conflate this case of a clearly unbalanced power dynamic with a completely dissimilar fictional story was unfortunate, and speaks to larger truths about the lasting effects of homophobic stereotypes. Spacey’s actions seemed to confirm a bias that is still held by many who consider all gay men to be sexual predators, and that left Call Me By Your Name with a deluge of negative sentiment to wade through in time for the November premiere.
In juxtaposing the two, the fictional story and the real events happening just beyond the movie theater walls, director Guadagnino’s film becomes an even stronger ode to the rarity and strength of genuine affection. Even as Elio and Oliver indulge in flings with the local girls, they still wind up choosing each other, over and over. Neither bother with the weight that accompanies labels for gender and sexuality; instead, they relish the “egalitarianism of the moment,” as Elio says in the novel. Perhaps this is idealistic, but what part of a summer romance in Italy isn’t ideal? Besides, age doesn’t matter when falling in love turns two people into one. Call Me By Your Name could feature the pair at any age, anywhere, and the central premise would hold: Love strikes indiscriminately, and anyone who gets clobbered should consider themselves lucky.