Refusal of History

The film’s refusal of history may itself be a response to Italy’s legacy of adult male/adolescent boy-themed cinema. Visconti’s 1971 Death in Venice dramatizes Thomas Mann’s 1911 novella about the infatuation of an aging professor (in the movie he is a composer) with a beautiful aristocratic boy as a cinematic tone-poem to an entire decadent bourgeois class cut off from vitality and passion. In Teorema, Pasolini’s 1968 spiritual and political fable, a ravishing Terence Stamp sleeps with everyone in the repressed haute-bourgeois family that welcomes him, man and woman, overseer and servant, with liberating and destructive results. Guadagnino can’t be innocent of these precursors, but he seems determined to vaporize them.

The evasions of Call Me by Your Name

The art direction team of Call Me By Your Name. Photo by Peter Spears

The season’s consensus hit film is a sun-drenched love story about a summer affair between a 17-year-old boy and 24-year-old man, set among professorial bibelots and Parnassian Northern Italian villas. This is at a time when, to take only one example from an ever-lengthening list, Kevin Spacey is being airbrushed out of movies for allegedly having systematically sexually exploited younger male actors, as official Hollywood promises to change an abusive culture, both on set and on the screen, that’s at least as old as the studio system itself. The celebration of Call Me by Your Name (nominated for several Oscars) among the same people who approve of #MeToo and #TimesUp may be a sign that mainstream liberal culture can still suspend its disbelief when it comes to cinematic sexual fantasies.

Based on André Aciman’s acclaimed 2007 novel of the same title, the film has at its center the all-accepting, impossibly cultivated Perlman family. The patriarch (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an archaeologist specializing in Greco-Roman antiquities. Assimilated Jews, ensconced in an exquisite villa in Italy’s Po Valley, with several servants, these characters are so supremely cosmopolitan in their tastes and attitudes that they have allegiance to no nation. Surrounded by loyal servants and burnished landscapes, they might be an idealized, updated version of the Finzi-Continis of Vittorio De Sica’s celebrated 1970 movie, only without the doomed Finzi-Continis’ Mussolini-era troubles. The Perlmans don’t just enjoy their privileges—those privileges constitute their placid and closed-off worldview. This is the kind of movie in which characters go around saying things like, “Have you seen my Heptaméron?” Conveniently, we are in pre-AIDS awareness, early 1980s Italy, with the Flashdance soundtrack and the Psychedelic Furs on the radio, where nasty Puritan values and homophobic judgments can be checked at the airport.

The professor smiles beatifically at his lovely, mysteriously accented wife Annella (Amira Casar) and adorable son Elio (a very talented Timothée Chalamet) but especially on his new intern, the handsome American newcomer, Oliver (Armie Hammer), also Jewish. The Jewish Ken Doll is an American graduate student who immediately impresses his hosts, groggy on sun and good food, with his philological erudition. He knows the origins of the word “apricot,” which has a Greco-Latin sources, he explains, and denotes “premature” or “precocious” (and hence the apricot’s symbolic significance in a film about an erotic relationship between a modern-day Zeus and his willing Ganymede). The family responds to this showy display of linguistic prowess with immediate, exuberant love. The cherubic Elio is himself a Renaissance prodigy. Fluent in English, French, and Italian, he also plays Bach on the piano and guitar—and not just any Bach but, as Elio explains, “Bach as Liszt would have played it” and “Busoni would’ve played it.” At one point he is shown dipping into Stendhal’s 1827 novel of star-crossed love, Armance.

Hammer gives a vacuous, genial frat-boy performance, which lends his discussions of Heidegger and Greek philosophy a distinctly ersatz feel. In any case, it’s not his character’s piercing scholarly mind that is supposed to seduce either his onscreen or off-screen audiences. Oliver is always in shorts, in bathing suits, in a towel. The camera focuses on his briefs with a fetishist’s ardor. It’s just a matter of time before Elio steals a pair and smells them ecstatically. No body in the film is as much on view, however, as Elio’s, a skinny cupid with dark locks and chocolate-colored eyes, repeatedly seen bare-chested, squirming on his bed with increased longing for the American stud, or running around semi-clad, or playing the piano while shirtless. Although we are told that Oliver is 24, Hammer looks more like 29, just as Chalamet could pass for 14.

Though the Aciman novel was often precious, it at least displayed a nominal interest in the emotions that its male lovers were experiencing and arousing in each other. By contrast, the film’s director Luca Guadagnino, who has made ads for fashion designers (he has worked for Giorgio Armani), is drawn only to surfaces. He has a pornographer’s faith in the absolute, all-determining potency of the luscious imagery of guy-on-guy action. And he accentuates what is worst about the novel: its snobbery about the supposedly elevated sex among the cultivated, young, and beautiful.

When the sex in the film isn’t gloriously idealized it’s downright absurd. A protracted scene of Elio masturbating with a peach is treated as a stirring, necessary adolescent rite of passage. The scene has already garnered what can only be called a Talmudic discussion on the internet as filmgoers struggle to extract its meaning. Peaches and apricots are everywhere in the movie, and the family serves a special apricot nectar at its meals. But the real, galvanizing nectar in the optics of the film is semen. Oliver and Eliot shoot it, share it, taste, it, spread it, and the dutiful female servants pick up the semen-stained clothes that are tossed from the carnal beds. (In the novel Oliver discovers Elio masturbating with the peach, and they ritualistically both taste the semen-stained fruit, whereas in the movie Oliver declines.)

In a somewhat similar spirit, the film’s producers have been widely disseminating the James Ivory screenplay, in order to foment the film’s already heady Oscar buzz. After narrating the increments in the adolescent’s boy’s self-pleasuring, the script instructs: “When his orgasm quickly comes, he carefully aims into the open peach. He holds the fruit in both hands and looks around. He places the two halves of the raped [sic!] peach on the bedside table and covers himself with the towel.” It’s the old Merchant–Ivory touch: even in the midst of sexual transgression, bourgeois manners are not just noted but observed—carefully, decorously, ludicrously.

In a rare instance of coyness, Guadagnino doesn’t make it clear if the sex between graduate student and his adoring ephebe is only masturbatory and oral or if, as passions swell, it goes anal. This frees the director from having to explore the power dynamics in penetrative sex, in which dominance and pain are possible, sometimes inevitable, and often even desired components. But then the movie suggests that with the tanned, rugged Oliver and the delicate, future genius Elio, the specifics of sex acts and thorny issues underlying an older male’s involvement with an adolescent boy are not really relevant. The plot hedges slightly about who comes on to whom: While Elio technically makes “the first move,” there are several scenes of Oliver walking in on him in his shorts, chest bare, and a scene where Oliver massages Elio’s back and then directs a woman to do the same. There’s no legal issue here, of course. With obvious calculation, the story is set in Italy, where age of consent long has been 14.

But Call Me by Your Name is not a movie set in any kind of recognizable world. Aside from a single, passing reference to Oliver’s homophobic father, there’s not a hint of social opprobrium with regard to same-sex relations between men. This is a fantasy universe where homosexuality represents no social transgression or existential crisis. And with Ivory as the screenwriter, it’s a familiar Merchant-Ivory fantasy, with the requisite attention to exquisite furnishings and burnished Italian landscapes. This is a gay-male positive A Room with a View for audiences who found Brokeback Mountain just too much to bear.

The film’s refusal of history may itself be a response to Italy’s legacy of adult male/adolescent boy-themed cinema. Visconti’s 1971 Death in Venice dramatizes Thomas Mann’s 1911 novella about the infatuation of an aging professor (in the movie he is a composer) with a beautiful aristocratic boy as a cinematic tone-poem to an entire decadent bourgeois class cut off from vitality and passion. In Teorema, Pasolini’s 1968 spiritual and political fable, a ravishing Terence Stamp sleeps with everyone in the repressed haute-bourgeois family that welcomes him, man and woman, overseer and servant, with liberating and destructive results. Pasolini understood that homosexuality wasn’t just seamless, foxy fun. Guadagnino can’t be innocent of these precursors—Hammer’s beauty is presented in such a way as to suggest that it renders everyone of any age, sex, and class weak at the knees, just as Stamp’s does—but he seems determined to vaporize them.

Neither does the unreality of Call Me by Your Name denote the inspired stylization and anti-realistic camp aesthetics of a Todd Haynes or a Pedro Almodóvar film, but rather a disinclination to depict any impediment to rapturous sex between man and adolescent boy. This stems from the misconception that man/boy relations exist in some idealized realm outside of the perils bedeviling heterosexual relationships in so many arenas and professions, in which older, powerful men can exploit much younger women. Critics are actually praising the film as a welcome antidote to the menaced state of sexual relations today. “So assailed are we by reports of harmful pleasures, and of the coercive male will being imposed through lust,” writes the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, “that it comes as a relief to be reminded, in such style, of consensual joy.” Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers believes the movie transcends the issue of sexual orientation altogether. “With Oliver, Elio feels he can talk about ‘things that matter.’” he writes, “The beauty part is that these ‘things’ matter to all of us, regardless of sexual orientation, when we’re gutted for the first time by that thing called love.” That we are dealing with a fantasy about a fantasy comes across in Manohla Dargis’s claim that the film is nothing less than a movie about “the creation of a new man who, the story suggests, is liberated by pleasure that doesn’t necessarily establish sexual identity.”

Pace Dargis, the fantasy structuring Oliver and Elio’s relationship is not so new. The idea that that sex between an adult male and an adolescent boy is a more elevated form of erotic relations than heterosexual congress (especially between older men and younger women) obviously has its antecedents in a certain strain in Greek philosophy. This notion found avid devotees among late-Victorian aesthetes and “decadents” eager to find classical models for besieged and illicit same-sex relations between men, most famously articulated in Charles Kains Jackson’s 1894 essay “The New Chivalry,” which celebrated eroticized relations between males over carnal congress with women. For Kains Jackson, the female sex represented such “unspiritual” functionalist values as species reproduction or else abstractions such as Nature. To be fair, though, these backward-looking “Uranians” were struggling to find an appealing exemplum for homosexual desire at a time when there were very few models of such behavior and just as the law and medical science were categorizing homosexuality in criminal and pathological terms. (Many of these men were known as Uranians on account of their supposed affiliation with, according to the 19th-century German sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the Greek goddess Aphrodite Urania, whose inherent androgyny supposedly stemmed from her having been created from Zeus’s testicles, thus making her the emblem of what Ulrichs believed was a “third sex.”)

As Kains Jackson and his turn-of-the-century brethren make clear, women always fare poorly in these Hellenic utopian schemes. That may be one reason that Call Me by Your Name depicts its female characters in the most depressingly limited terms. Both Oliver and Elio have (notably, given all that male cerebral power on display, non-intellectual) hedonistic, pretty girlfriends with whom they have meaningless sex. These women remain in the dark about their boyfriends’ special bond, as if they have no curiosity or perceptiveness. Elio’s mother, evidently a translator, seems to have nothing to do other than oversee meals along with her husband’s mysteriously important academic career. (There’s a hint of the neurotic costs of her choices in her chain smoking.) In a touch that would have Pasolini turning in his grave, the female servants register their lowly position through their blankly dutiful facial expressions. They’re too dumb to appreciate the Hellenic wonders going on in the bedrooms they clean.

The film is strenuously renovating the Athenian ideal because both heterosexual and homosexual relations have now been tainted by charges of exploitation, violation, and predation. At the same time, in a maddening contradiction, the conception of heterosexual marriage dramatized in the film—signaling life-long monogamy and warm, self-regarding, possibly sexless family values—might have been dreamed up in a Queer Nation agitprop workshop. And it is to the enclosure of hetero-marriage that Oliver flees, after all of that steamy sex. In one of the film’s last scenes, we learn that he has become engaged to a woman after returning to America. Surely the very educated, penetrating Perlman family would be curious about this extraordinary transformation in its beloved friend? Instead they are shown congratulating him with Mazel Tovs in a cross-Atlantic phone call, with Elio, nearby, evidently accepting with his angelic equanimity the news of his beloved lover’s transfer of romantic ardor to a woman via matrimony. (In a belated interest in emotions, the movie’s last shot shows Elio’s tear-stained face staring into a fireplace, although whether he has cried out of bereavement over the loss of Oliver or his sadness at Oliver’s new-found sexual identity—or both—is unclear.)

Why would Oliver, always depicted in the movie as debonairly self-confident and even boldly brash in his affections for Elio, end up with a woman? Maybe he wasn’t so resolved and confident about his sexuality? Or perhaps the movie is a paean to what one might call the gilded closet, before the AIDS crisis and the messy recent political struggles for equal marriage? One way or the other, the film is pushing a reactionary sexual politics in which homosexual desire is at its most glorious only when both privileged and forbidden. Exquisitely choreographed bisexuality is the new, sanctioned promiscuity.

Call Me by Your Name concludes with Elio’s father explaining to his son that the boy is lucky because he has found a special, rare friendship with another man and that he himself has never found such a wonderful bond. One wonders how in the world Professor Perlman knew it was such an elevating experience: Oliver and Elio are never shown so much as discussing the nature of their relationship. And are we being asked to believe that the father is denigrating his marriage to the boy’s mother, a woman who we have seen to be a model of beauty, cultivation, and sensitivity? One finds oneself wondering if this monologue is meant as a coming-out speech. After all, one intimate scene has Professor Perlman and his handsome protégé looking at slides of classical images of male athletes as the distinguished scholar rhapsodizes about their “ageless ambiguity.” (“As if they are daring you to desire them,” he tells Oliver.)

If Professor Perlman’s sermon to his son is a coming-out speech—or perhaps, more accurately, a why-I can’t-come-out-now-that-I’m-middle-aged speech—then we are asked to believe that he has had to settle for the diminishment of heterosexual marriage and prosaic domesticity. It could be that the film is making explicit its own artifice at the end—or making a late bid for some kind of historically bound melancholy in Perlman’s Aschenbach-like predicament. But I think the movie is just confused. The professor’s speech is so warmly tolerant of male same-sex love that it raises the question of why Perlman would need to be closeted. It might be a speech a married man would make to his son in 1959—but not in the 1980s. The lecture not only posits gay sex as the exclusive preserve of the youthful and pretty, but presents it as a momentary retreat from a universal and inevitable heterosexual reality. Oliver and Elio’s erotic bond is an exalted experience to be “transcended” by an “adult” futurity that must be heterosexual. The movie salutes Oliver’s choice of heterosexual marriage as a “mature” decision, although one that preserves in amber his dalliance (or is it just a phase?) with his adolescent boy lover.

I can imagine that there are thoughtful people who are admirers of Call Me by Your Name and who, faced with what seems like an unfair set of charges against the film, might wonder what’s so wrong with a movie that is pure fantasy. Why can’t there be a gay Notebook? But there is escapist movie-making—and then there is this film, whose spurious innocence belies its youth-flattering cynicism and makes it an amnesiac tool for hard times. The fact that, in the process, it relentlessly sexualizes a 17-year-old boy should give one pause: exactly why are we celebrating this Mediterranean vacation from plausibility, politics, and history? Maybe it’s because it seems like a perfect vacation from having to wrestle with present-day realities about the complexities of desire, sex, and power?

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