cauly adams’s review published on Letterboxd:
i am here today because i am gay and have been seeing a surge of negative takes online recently, specifically regarding the age gap between elio and oliver. i’ve found a lot of the takes from people both for and against the movie to be pretty un-nuanced and lacking in any historical or societal context so i just thought i would write down a couple of words about my musings on the matter.
age gaps really are the easiest thing for me to feel uncomfortable about, even gay age gap relationships today creep me out. i’m 24 (the age oliver is in the movie) and i get super creeped out when i see someone attractive and then find out that they’re even just 2 years younger than me, so as soon as the age gap discourse around this movie began when it was released i began to get confused about how something that would typically be really apparent and bothersome to me didn’t concern me in the slightest. all i know is that this movie spoke to me so deeply in ways i couldn’t quite articulate on first watch. i’ve seen it a lot since then and think i have created a pretty solid reading on the film that i think helps to explain why i don’t share the same issues that other people do. the people who defend this movie often bring up the fact that elio is within the age of consent in the movie but i’m not going to use that because i think it’s very obvious that just because something is lawful doesn’t make it right morally.
i think the first thing people talk about when it comes to the seven year age gap are the power dynamics. this is something i fully understand when it comes to every other relationship but i don’t really think it applies as heavily here. i’m not sure age in and of itself puts someone in a position of power over someone else and if we look at the situation on face value elio arguably has a lot more power than oliver. oliver has moved to a different country he’s (presumably) never been to before, living in elio’s house with elio’s parents, working for elio’s dad and constantly surrounded by elio’s family’s various friends and acquaintances. he is completely out of his element while elio is completely IN it and i think, in a lot of ways, oliver is the most naive character in the film.
in a romantic context i think it’s typically the experience associated with age that is what often makes the coupling of an older, more experienced person and a younger, less experienced person so icky. for me though, oliver doesn’t have any experience when it comes to his own gayness. i know in the book it’s pretty clear cut that both he and elio are bisexual but in the movie it has always read to me that elio is bisexual (or maybe even pan) while oliver is fully gay but deeply closeted. in a conversation about elio’s very open minded parents oliver notes that his own dad would have carted him off to some facility, letting the audience know that his home life is less than ideal when it comes to being able to openly explore his sexuality which is in stark contrast to elio’s own upbringing. very early on oliver says “i’m from a small town in new england, i know what it’s like to be the odd jew out” and that would absolutely translate to his sexuality too. i don’t see elio as being at all ashamed about his sexuality while oliver clearly is - which also adds to oliver’s naivety and lack of real power over the more self assured elio.
i think it’s also really important to look at the historical context of the film. the story is set in 1983, the time of reagan and thatcher and the aids epidemic which is beginning to hit its peak. it’s an especially dangerous time to be gay both healthwise and in terms of public perception. the lgbt rights movement really came to the forefront of american consciousness after the stonewall riots in june 1969 and, i find, with increased visibility comes increased division as people are kind of forced to confront things they’ve never truly had to deal with before and pick a side. the rise of hiv and aids in the 80’s only served to further fuel that deep division and hatred towards the lgbt community.
something else i want to address is the claim that oliver grooms elio which i find laughable. oliver touches elio’s shoulder once and then later makes a point of saying that the way elio reacted made him feel like he’d molested him and that he felt it best to keep his distance from then on. elio spends most of the first hour hooking up with marzia and subtly pursuing oliver until it reaches a bit of a boiling point when he essentially admits his feelings. oliver spends the majority of this sequence trying to put him off and stay keeping his distance (guadagnino literally puts a massive world war one memorial between them, that oliver uses to create a tangible distance as a way to stop his developing feelings towards elio from coming out) until he can’t help it anymore and they kiss. oliver stops it and says “i know myself. okay? and we’ve been good. we haven’t done anything to be ashamed of, and that’s a good thing. i wanna be good” and if that’s not the feelings of a severely repressed gay with deep internalised homophobia then idk what is. if oliver had got what he wanted and then lost interest in elio then i could completely understand but that is not the story. their relationship ends with a harrowingly silent goodbye on the platform and oliver leaving on the train and you can see the pain in his face as he can hardly bear to look at elio as the train departs. then during that phone call at the end he says “i remember everything” and it’s so clear that this was never a case of him manipulating elio just because he wanted to get it in. this was something almost spiritual for both of these guys.
“we wasted so many days” is my favourite line in this movie and i think it helps highlight a further point. gay people have, more often than not, had to hide their sexuality and repress it and because of this we miss out on those fleeting romances that straight people have and are allowed to have in their adolescence.
another thing that detractors of this film say is “imagine if this was an older guy and a younger girl! there’d be outrage!” and that’s totally true. there for sure would, and should, be. again, though, the context is very different. like i said, straight people are allowed to romantically and sexually develop at a normal rate while gay people, especially those growing up in the 70’s, 80’s and earlier, have spent their entire childhoods and teenage years repressing and hiding their true feelings because of the way society views us. that level of homophobia completely fucks with our heads and stunts us developmentally and it’s just not at all comparable to the way straight people navigate relationships.
throughout the movie oliver is very stoic, quiet and polite but when he and elio go on their solo trip to bergamo he comes alive. he’s vibrant and loud and animated and, most importantly, he’s happy. the only other time he’s like this is near the start when he’s dancing to the psychadelic furs’ “love my way”. you can tell during that scene he feels so free and he also feels the same way around elio which i think is so gloriously lovely i could honestly burst into tears.
the thing that really gets to me most is the fact that there is nothing seedy about this story or relationship. it is completely pure and romantic and lovely and is something The Gays™ just don’t ever get to see represented on screen and i think to cheapen something this beautiful into something with even a hint of grossness is a real shame and does a complete disservice to the characters and the viewers who are finally able to see themselves in something overwhelmingly positive for once. also, to almost demonise oliver and all the people he represents (whose lives and emotional growth were stunted because of a backwards, closed minded society for finally feeling able to express themselves in the most natural and wholesome way after having been told over and over again they’re wrong for even wanting to be able to do) just feels super shitty, oppressive and victim blamey to me.
so, yeah, these are my thoughts and i doubt anyone will have read over 1500 words about this but still! i can completely understand how, on a surface level, someone might find the age gap troubling but i think the film is so much richer thematically than that and deserves a more thorough examination and i would have felt wrong not to at least try and defend something that means a great deal to me and to many of my fellow lonely gays.