From the moment he arrives at the villa where he’s to spend the summer, Oliver feels almost shockingly American — or, at least, he feels like a stereotype of what it means to be American. He’s big and blond and bluff, he uses informal expressions like “later” for goodbye and he carries himself with a loose energy, whether he’s on the dance floor or rolling himself off a ledge into a pool.
That’s not all there is to Oliver, of course: Despite his almost overwhelmingly Aryan good looks, he wears a Star of David necklace, and as we, and Elio, learn over the course of the movie, he also sleeps with men. But at the beginning of “Call Me by Your Name,” it’s those expansive American traits that Oliver embodies so naturally that both repulse and appeal to Elio, and to plenty of other people in the movie. In fact, the ambiguity and confusion Elio feels about Oliver is something he initially casts as a matter of Oliver’s Americanness, the casualness that borders on rudeness, the older man’s almost profligate friendliness and physical self-confidence.
Elio is also wrestling with his physical attraction to Oliver. At first, he seems to be emulating the American, pursuing an affair with Marzia (Esther Garrel) in an imitation of Oliver’s other summer fling. And when the two begin their affair, the relationship plays out in part as an act of swapped identities; it’s as if they’re metaphorically, and in one case literally, trying to consume each other’s essences. The film’s title (and that of the novel from which it’s adapted) is an expression of this idea that becomes part of their erotic interplay: “Call Me by Your Name” is a request to switch identities, even temporarily. Elio is trying on what he sees as Oliver’s American openness and worldliness.
Of course, the poignant coda to “Call Me by Your Name” is all about the fact that Oliver turns out to be someone rather different than Elio believed he was. In a holiday phone call to Elio and his family, Oliver informs Elio that he’s getting married to a woman; in effect, he’s slipping back behind that blond, bland facade and retreating into the sort of heterosexual normality that people expect of him, rather than returning to the fever dream of their summer. Oliver, it turns out, was trying on being Elio, who is still free to become whoever he wants.
During their interregnum, Elio had responded with disdain to a gay couple who came to dinner: “You’re too old not to accept people for who they are,” his father told him at the time. “Is [your reaction] because they’re gay, or because they’re ridiculous?” Oliver seemed to Elio to offer another way of being until that moment when he doesn’t. It’s more painful to see Oliver’s facade descend again once we, and Elio, know what’s behind it. The end of “Call Me by Your Name” suggests that bluffness can be a weapon for cutting others off as well as a way of generating intimacy.
Obviously, the way “Call Me by Your Name” examines Americanness is vastly gentler than the struggle over the American idea taking place right now. It’s filtered through a haze of summer and sex and the heightened state of late adolescence (and I can see how the seven-year age difference between Elio and Oliver could strike some viewers as off-putting, given the moment in which it’s been released, even if it didn’t feel that way to me). The movie isn’t about race (Elio’s family is Jewish as well), or class, or gender, or how any of these things inflect the American idea or limit access to it. “Call Me by Your Name” is set at a remove from America both in time — it’s set in the 1980s — and place.
But sometimes, what matters most in a resonant movie isn’t finding an exact parallel with the events that have brought a nation or the world to a specific point; “Call Me by Your Name” doesn’t have to be about, say, the Vietnam-civil rights-Watergate era to capture the idea of an identity in flux, or even in crisis. Instead, Elio’s grief and quiet coming to terms with his own disillusionment in the final moments of “Call Me by Your Name” cut through the years and the circumstances to pierce my heart. In “Call Me by Your Name,” and in most of our lives, the most glorious version of the American idea is a summer romance. Its end is inevitable, but the memory of it haunts us forever.