I don’t like slow. I’m pretty sure I don’t like slow. But this film is slow. And I liked it.
It’s a summer in the early 1980s, and for some inexplicable reason a hunky Yank named Oliver turns up at an academic’s house in northern Italy and stays for the summer. As you do. For some reason the family speaks English with an American twang, and Oliver seems to understand Italian far better than he speaks it. The son in his mid teens, Elio, vacates his bedroom for Oliver, sleeping instead in an adjoining bedroom, which, apparently, is unsuitable for Yanks, given their delicate temperaments. And this exposition takes at least half an hour. Did I mention the film is slow?
I mean, any slower and I’d have popped out for a three course meal in the middle and probably not have missed any significant plot points. And yet, I stayed engaged. This surprises me. Usually I want the film to move, but I really didn’t mind the slow and steady building of character layers, the quiet, lounging nature of their days or the inconsistent progression of the central characters’ relationship.
Oliver and Elio connect, then disconnect. They approach an equilibrium, then are thrown off. Elio acts out, as teenagers are wont to do; Oliver doesn’t come home, as hunky Yanks are wont to do. Slowly (I did say it’s slow, right?), the unbalanced nature of this character development endears these two uncharming characters to me. I feel Elio’s angst as he recognises his attraction to Oliver, and I accept Oliver’s resistance to his own attraction.
This is, perhaps, one of the most endearing and relatable aspects of the characters: their internalised homophobia is something I recognise in myself. At no point in this film (and there was plenty of time to include it), does any other character make a homophobic comment. The only place homophobia appears is within the gay characters themselves. Elio’s parents push the couple together; other members of the community never pass any comments on their sexuality; and yet, the central characters resist their urges not only because of the age gap but because of their perceptions of right and wrong. It’s a deeply endearing process that breaks my heart.
SPOILER ALERT: Now, if you keep reading this post, you will encounter comments relating to the ending. If you’ve not seen it, stop, watch, and then carry on. The only reason this film is worth writing about is because of a magical moment of cinematic genius at the end, so I’m writing about it.
The long road to Oliver and Elio finally acting on their urges jars splendidly with the immediate nature of sex and dating in this century. That slow development is entirely foreign to younger generations, and to have it depicted in this manner is a valuable cultural record if nothing more.
But it is more. And as much as I rail against the slowness, as much as I just want something to happen, the languishing nature of the plot here leads to one beautiful moment of cinematic bliss. It begins when Oliver leaves to return to America: I felt the pain of that separation like it was my own. And it wasn’t just lovers: saying goodbye like that has been part of my life since I was 11 when a slew of deaths and departures began for my family. The gut-wrenching numbness depicted here could have been mine. And the moment when Oliver tells Elio that he’s getting married, the finality of that moment; the internalised homophobia inherent in the act; and most of all, Elio’s silent, howling alone-ness echoed in my heart like they were my own.
There, at that moment, is the genius of this film. The slow slow build, the euphoric collision of love and lust, and the sudden wrench of separation culminating in absolute despair resonate with my experience. And I sat in awe at how this film took me there so subtly, so deftly, so firmly.
Would that I had the talent of James Ivory Luca Guadagnino to recognise the value of slow.