What Should We Make of Call Me by Your Name’s Age-Gap Relationship?

Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer as the lovers in Call Me by Your Name.

Sony Pictures Classics

In September, James Woods, the actor and prolific Twitter bigot, retweeted a post that read “24-year-old man. 17-year-old boy. Stop.” The tweet referred to Call Me by Your Name, the new adaptation of the much-loved novel by André Aciman about Elio, a precocious 17-year-old (Timothée Chalamet in the film), who has an intense romance with Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old scholar staying with Elio’s family of bohemian intellectuals for a summer. Woods being Woods, he added the hashtag “#NAMBLA” to his tweet, invoking a long-despised fringe group the alt-right has recently weaponized to smear anti-Trump protesters. Hammer, who is running the press rounds for the film, had a quick response on Twitter: “Didn’t you date a 19-year-old when you were 60…….?”

Call Me by Your Name has earned gushing early praise and is already a meme factory, even though it doesn’t open in the United States until Nov. 24. It is a likely Oscar contender, particularly for Chalamet’s tremulous performance. In response to Woods’ assault, the movie’s growing fan base quickly sprang into action: Hammer’s response was widely shared and amplified in magazines. (You can Google Woods’ sex life if you wish, but Hammer’s retort wasn’t far off.) The story soon took a disturbing turn when actress Amber Tamblyn accused Woods of making a pass at her when she was 16 in Hollywood. He denied it, but the sordid headlines continued for days.

Woods deserved his public censure, but the shift in focus to his alleged behavior effectively sidestepped any of the understandable squeamishness that surrounds the film. Call My by Your Name is, for all its subtlety and specificity, fundamentally about an erotic relationship between a 17-year-old teenager and a 24-year-old man. It will also be released in a moment of heightened scrutiny around sexual abuse in Hollywood, including the revelations about Kevin Spacey, which, thanks in part to his joint apology/coming-out statement, seemed to renew old and damaging associations of gayness with molestation. It isn’t hard to find more tweets accusing the movie and even Hammer himself of promoting pedophilia, and as more people see the film, these accusations will undoubtedly intensify.

For fans of the book and the film, it may feel self-evident that Call Me by Your Name is not a story of predation: It’s a story of first love and lust told from the perspective of a particularly mature teenager on the cusp of adulthood; the relationship is consensual; even Elio’s parents seem to approve; and, in any case, this is a fictional depiction, not an ethical endorsement. But the age gap will give pause to more people than right-wing trolls—it did to my progressive companion at an early screening—and it does the film no favors to pretend it’s not a question worth exploring.

Hammer himself, faced with these criticisms, has tended to use age-of-consent laws to wave them away. He’s pointed out that in most U.S. states, the age of consent is 16. In Italy, where the movie takes place, the age of consent is 14; it was also 14 in 1983, when the movie is set. (Historically, age of consent was, due to homophobia, often higher for same-sex relations, but at least officially, that doesn’t appear to have been the case in Italy.) That said, age-of-consent laws in general seem like an odd way to assess a fictional relationship. Our laws are a tangled legal morass that seek, and often fail, to establish a reasonable standard of consent. They traffic in their own kind of fiction by imagining that a person’s maturity and readiness around sex radically changes with an arbitrary birthday. The hard reality is that age of consent laws are not a universal red line that automatically makes a relationship predatory or not.

But even if Call Me by Your Name doesn’t depict anything technically illegal, does that make it ethical? To answer that, we need to resist the revulsion that often comes with thinking about sexual relationships outside the idealized “charmed circle” (of the straight, married, same-age sort) and consider the specifics of the situation. That’s not to give cover to pedophilia or any other form of violation, but to acknowledge that human desire can be far more complex and intractable than we might like to admit. Not every relationship removed from our comfort zone is abuse.

The book, and to a somewhat muddier extent the film, are told from the perspective of Elio, the son of a professor who accepts Columbia postdoc Oliver into their Italian villa for a summer of manuscript revisions. Before long, Elio is sick with desire for Oliver; he pursues a local girl his age, but his obsession with Oliver continues to deepen all the same. The book’s first 100 pages are a furious and often comic encyclopedia of lust. By the time Elio finally snaps and comes on to Oliver, kissing and fondling him on a berm where Monet purportedly painted, it’s obvious the desire is mutual, and the couple embark on a tentative and then increasingly ravenous erotic relationship for the last weeks of summer.

Call Me by Your Name, the book, then, is very much the story of a 17-year-old teenager learning to navigate and act on his desire. Aciman, the author, is interested in this rich and tumultuous journey, rather than necessarily endorsing sex across morally charged aged differences. Oliver remains mostly opaque: Though we learn he stayed away from Elio in the early days of summer to avoid the coupling, their perspectives are never given equal footing. That, to me, is essential: Call Me by Your Name is really all about Elio’s experience. Few readers who were ever 17, particularly (gay) male readers, will not recognize some of themselves in him. He’s an older teenager messily discovering his sexuality. It’s misguided to deny that such a basically human process should be represented in a work of art, even if the outcomes of that process make us uncomfortable.

That reading stands for the film as well, though medium limitations and directorial choices complicate it in a few ways. For one, we lose the book’s manic density of emotional narration: The film is still told from Elio’s point of view, but without novelistic access to his mind, his agency and the depths of his desire are less clear. Call Me by Your Name also has a gentler, more conventionally romantic energy on screen (as opposed to the hungry, almost darkly obsessive tone of the book), and that may color perceptions of the depiction. Director Luca Guadagnino and writer James Ivory choose to emphasize Elio’s fragility and youth in a way that suggests the relationship guts him emotionally, and the film skips the book’s closing jump into the future, where Elio’s view of the relationship has many more dimensions than just “sad.”

There is also the simple fact that Hammer, at 31, looks much older than 24, and Chalamet, at 21, barely looks 17. In the book, one has the sense that while Oliver carries a sort of broad-shouldered “American” manliness compared with Elio, the two are not in such wildly different ZIP codes physically. The film exaggerates that difference. Still, none of these book-to-movie changes affect the essential way I view the film—as an urgent and beautiful story of discovery—but that may not be true for you. That’s fine. Even if the relationship is legal or consensual or meets any other criteria, some viewers will find it inappropriate or worse, and that’s a subjective reality that the movie’s fans—and Hammer and the filmmakers—have to accept.

In trying to think through these issues in Call Me by Your Name, I called Joseph Fischel, a Yale scholar who has written on the messy politics of age and consent for Slate. He noted our society’s intense focus on age and sexuality is a relatively recent notion, not a long-settled one, and that while the law may have a legitimate need to be blunt and rigid, our art does not. In my view, it’s reasonable to be disturbed by the unconventional relationship in Call Me by Your Name, but it’s not reasonable to say the movie endorses pedophilia, or really any kind of power-based abuse, just because it depicts that relationship. If we go down that censorious and unnuanced path with our art, very little will survive the trip.