[Warning: Some graphic descriptions and links.]
Upon it’s release, the film “Call Me by Your Name” was almost instantaneously heralded by the majority of movie critics as “an erotic triumph,” and “a beguiling tale of first love” and “another ravishment of the senses.”
“Call Me by Your Name” is based on the 2007 novel by Egyptian-born Jewish-American author André Aciman; who is heterosexual. The story revolves around the brief homosexual relationship between Elio, the 17-year-old son of an archaeologist, and Oliver, his father’s 24-year-old graduate student apprentice. In the film, the two male lead roles are played by Timothée Chalamet, who was 20 years old during filming, and Armie Hammer, who was 29.
Set in 1983, the movie begins with the arrival of Oliver at the idyllic Italian villa owned by Elio’s parents. Elio observes Oliver from a second-story window and remarks: “He seems very confident.” Then, we learn a little about Elio; he is semi-introverted, rather bookish and obsessed with composing music. In a sense, Elio is representative of all pre-homosexual boys who went through the same struggles; myself – I was a similarly disorientated kid who endlessly drew. Like many young men his age, he is unsure, somewhat shy and seemingly caught between his childhood and the world of adult men. His personality is contrasted with that of the boisterous, robust, highly poised, but casual nature of Oliver. Elio is first revolted by Oliver’s self-assured demeanor, but then becomes fascinated; in one scene, he follows Oliver to a small nearby village and into an all-male tavern, where Oliver coolly converses with everyone and then sits down among a group of men playing cards. In my own life, I keenly remember growing up, not unlike Elio, as a down-cast and slightly angry boy who watched my father and other men interact with a relaxed certitude and ease that was both off-putting and mesmerizing.
At first glance, Elio’s parents are highly progressive, nonchalant and lackadaisical; but they are also sexual libertines; an interesting scene occurs when the out-spoken house-keeper protests to Elio’s mother about the constant erratic unsupervised comings and goings of the boy. His mother flippantly dismisses her worries. In another scene, Elio’s father, who is self-absorbed with his work, encourages his son to sexually experiment with a local girl. After languidly watching Oliver’s ecstatic dance with a voluptuous woman, in an attempt to mimic the object of his fixation, he initiates his first sexual experience. Elio is awkward, but enjoys it. However, during a second liaison, he hears the song “Words” by F.R. David playing on his transistor radio:
Well, I’m just a music man
Melodies are so far my best friend
But my words are coming out wrong
Girl, I reveal my heart to you and
Hope that you believe it’s true cause
Words don’t come easy to me
How can I find a way to make you see I love you…
At that moment, he decides to share his feelings with Oliver. For the majority of “gay” men, Elio’s apparent bisexual inclination is incomprehensible, but it reveals his utter confusion and malleability.
As a former “gay” man, the most overwhelming aspect of the film is the contrasting appearance of Elio and Oliver. During much of the film, taking place in the midst of a sweltering Italian summer, the two male principles are almost constantly portrayed shirtless, wearing only swim trucks and sunbathing and splashing about a nearby swimming hole or pool. Therefore, it’s no surprise, James Ivory, of Merchant and Ivory fame, wrote the screenplay for “Call Me by Your Name.” Because in “A Room with a View” from 1985, the first major hit for Ivory and his former partner and collaborator the late Ismail Merchant, we see his fixation with male communal bathing; I will never forget as a teenage boy seeing the prolonged and incredibly explicit nude swimming scene in that film. Parts of the scene, due to the presence of the lissome blonde actor Julian Sands and the waifish Rupert Graves, evoke the wistful atmosphere of the work by artist Henry Scott Tuke who principally painted nude young men bathing on the English coastline. There is also a similar precedence in Continental Europe for these types of representations from a small group of early-20th Century avant-garde artists namely Sascha Schneider (see above) in Germany and Alexander Deineka in Russia. Both, were profiled by the gay periodical “The Advocate.” In fact, today there is a whole subgenre of homoerotic fiction and gay porn which details and attempts to recreate the often-embarrassing and clumsy childhood incidents at a public swimming pool or in the locker-room showers. Luca Guadagnino, the director of “Call Me by Your Name” titled his first major film “A Bigger Splash” in homage to gay British artist David Hockney’s painting of a man diving into a pool – created when Hockney was preoccupied with the naked young men swimming in his California backyard. Among the Hollywood elites, X-Men director Bryan Singer’s penchant for hosting pool parties attended by young boys and their older male admirers was a long established open secret.
The constant undress of the two stars is both voyeuristic and troubling; particularly because Elio looks much younger than 17, and Oliver appears older than 24; for those with even a rudimentary knowledge of gay male culture, there are also some obvious homosexual tropes being played with in the film; where Elio is slight, very thin, ribs-showing, smooth-skinned and pallid, Oliver is tall, muscular, hairy and bronzed. Similar to their contrasting temperaments, their postures are also remarkably different. Elio is slumped, tentative and prone to fidgeting, while Oliver remains in a constant state of self-control and swaggering confidence. Their incredibly dissimilar personalities and physical traits are almost immediately displayed near the beginning of the film when a sweaty Oliver, in the middle of a volleyball game, while Elio sits on the sidelines talking with the girls, approaches the hesitant young man and begins to rub his shoulders. Later, Oliver explains to Elio that there are certain non-verbal cues shared by gay men which serve to signal their interest in each other. When I first traveled to the video porn arcades, and gay dance-clubs of San Francisco, I quickly surmised the true meaning behind the often bewildering long-held stares and the deliberate unintentional brush of someone’s pelvis against my back as I sat on barstool.
Young gay and bisexual men are more likely to choose older sex partners than those of their own age, and older partners are more likely to be infected with HIV.
During every situation, revealing his naivete, Elio fails to comprehend Oliver’s promptings. Instead, he reverts into a boyish fantasy world of erotic daydreams and masturbation. This section of the film is indeed reminiscent of my own anguished teenage years; I recall as a lonely young man – peering out my bedroom window and masturbating while a shirtless construction worker strained his muscles laying concrete near my parent’s home; like Elio, I was attracted to his appearance, but it was his masculine determination and effortlessness that I found exciting. He was nothing like me.
While the film does raise some interesting questions about the development of homosexual desire, the way in which the filmmakers approached the subject is completely homoerotic boarding upon, and even steeping over into, the realm of child porn. For example, the conflicting physiognomy of Elio and Oliver is truly exaggerated by the choice of actors: Timothée Chalamet, who plays Elio, gives the appearance of being almost prepubescent; this is partially due to his frame, but also the styling employed in the film: he wears New Wave pop-music t-shirts, back-packs and brightly colored shorts. Throughout the film, the camera pans, scans and lingers upon Elio as he reclines half-naked on his bed; while expertly shot, they evoke some of the haunted moodiness of 19th-Century Victorian homoerotic paintings of the male nude, yet in “Call Me by Your Name” these scenes are unavoidably pornographic and reference the ugly porn-chic realism of celebrity photographer Terry Richardson and the undertones of ephebophilia in late-1970s and early-80s gay pornography. This reminds me of a phenomenon in the weird universe of gay porn, where there are “barely legal” actors who are often employed to appear in so-called daddy-son scenes, because they look younger and could pass off as the biological child of an older costar with whom they have sex with. The curly-haired and angelic-looking Chalamet in “Call Me by Your Name” is the epitome of the “twink” idea; in gay slang, a twink is a youngish, inexperienced, usually skinny and hairless gay man who typically takes on the passive role in a sexual relationship. In the majority of gay porn, this type is inevitably coupled with a larger framed, hairier, and muscular older man. In these tableaus, the younger partner is introduced to all-male sex by his patient and supportive lover. Therefore, for those familiar with that sort of imagery, the 6’5” Armie Hammer certainly fits the stereotypical gay vision of the mature, self-confident, somewhat egotistical older male that almost every young man meets when he initially begins to explore his sexuality. And the eventual sex scenes involving Chalamet and Hammer are neither titillating nor erotic, but strangely repulsive – especially when the towering Hammer picks up a lithe Chalamet and drops him on the bed; it’s as if we are watching a gay porn film with just better cinematography, dialogue and lighting. We are witnessing the ravishment of Ganymede by Zeus – and it isn’t pleasant.
Yet homoeroticism, even images depicting teenage boys, is nothing new to gay male culture. The cult of the beautiful boy dates back to at least Ancient Greece, where the ephebe or adolescent male, not a woman, was celebrated as the near height of physical beauty; the Kritios boy is one of the great landmarks in the history of Western art. In Athenian society, the adulation for the adolescent boy went beyond the gaze of a viewer and comprised the practice of male pederasty or “boy love” involving a pubescent boy and an older man; these relationships were not permanent and never indicated a modern conception of a homosexual orientation. Instead, these relationships included a sort of rite of passage whereby the older male instructed and mentored the boy as to the ways of manhood. In Western culture, this practice was endemic only to certain parts of Greece and only briefly revived by the grecophile Roman Emperor Hadrian who deified his dead teenage lover Antinous after the handsome youth mysteriously drowned – leaving hauntingly beautiful portraits of the boy all over the Empire. Today, the image of the aloof and sullen beautiful boy remains a staple in the gay lexicon from Oscar Wilde’s “Portrait of Dorian Gray” to the homosexual male interest in the very young Justin Bieber.
What is most disconcerting about the film is the subplot involving Elio’s archaeologist father and his rather bizarre musing about man-boy love. Mid-way through the film, a crucial scene occurs when Elio’s father and Oliver look through a series of slides all of which show various Hellenistic male nude bronze sculptures; Oliver makes a remark about their “sensual” character. In terms of Greek art portraying the male nude, Hellenism witnessed a decadent blurring of the genders when statues of men became increasingly curved and fluid; Donatello’s much later Renaissance version of an ephebic “David” expresses the persistence of this form.
In “Call Me by Your Name,” there is a cryptic quasi-spiritual initiation scene when Elio accompanies his father and Oliver to the underwater excavation of a lost bronze sculpture depicting a heroic ancient Greek athlete – it’s one of those beautiful supple-muscled ephebes that Oliver finds so incredibly sensual. After the discovery, father, son and Oliver romp ecstatically on the backlit shoreline.
But most disturbing, at the conclusion of the film, a despondent Elio, looking wounded and childlike sitting on a couch, mourning the absence of Oliver, is consoled by his concerned father. Here, his dad comforts Elio by expressing his admiration for the relationship he and Oliver shared; according to Elio’s father – he too once experienced something similar, but not to their degree of intensity. He says:
You’re too smart not to know how rare, how special, what you two had was.
Look – you had a beautiful friendship. Maybe more than a friendship. And I envy you. In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, to pray that their sons land on their feet. But I am not such a parent.
Elio’s father is an odd mix of Chris Colfer’s facilitatingly supportive dad from “Glee” and gay rights advocate Harry Hay. When questioned about his advocacy for NAMBLA (The North American Man/Boy Love Association), Hay once said:
…if the parents and friends of gays are truly friends of gays, they would know from their gay kids that the relationship with an older man is precisely what thirteen-, fourteen-, and fifteen-year-old kids need more than anything else in the world.
One of the more disturbing and deceptive aspects of the film is the usually awkward Elio suddenly becoming aggressive towards his attraction for Oliver; even after being rebuffed – he grabs the older man’s crotch. This sort of misrepresentation is reminiscent of NAMBLA and child molester talking-points who repeatedly claim that abused children instigated and enjoyed their own molestation. This delusional thought pattern by male pedophiles was horrifically explored in the 1994 documentary “Chicken Hawk: Men Who Love Boys,” in which several men explained how children supposedly flirted and seduced them. According to NAMBLA, one of their stated goals includes: “to educate society about the positive and beneficial nature of man/boy love, and to support men and boys involved in consensual sexual and emotional relationships with each other.”
As a young man, even when I was 17, or younger, if an older self-assured man would have shown any interest in me, and then initiated a sexual relationship – I would have been a willing participant. Yet, as it happened, when I was 18, not because I was waiting, but on account that I innocently thought I wouldn’t be able to get into a gay club when I was younger, I finally found a man who was indeed masculine, confident, and commanding – and he wasn’t the bullying jock or the disinterested straight guy that I adored from afar; remarkably, he wanted to be with me; he was interested in me, he wanted me to share my feelings and he listened to what I had to say. I would do anything to be near that man. At the height of the AIDS crisis, when a positive HIV test meant an almost assuredly swift and painful death – I was even willing to risk my life. Did my first experience include some sort of coercion? Here, there is a bit of sad truth in André Aciman’s original text:
I knew there’d be no coming back from this. When it happened, it happened not as I’d dreamed it would, but with a degree of discomfort that forced me to reveal more of myself than I cared to reveal. I had an impulse to stop him, and when he noticed, he did ask, but I did not answer, or didn’t know what to answer, and an eternity seemed to pass between my reluctance to make up my mind and his instinct to make it up for me.
As poignant as these words sound, they prove ultimately false in the context of the novel and the film; for in the sex act with another man, everything and nothing is simultaneously revealed. The effects of homosexuality are often transitory and all too fleeting; even a broken innocence is stripped away forever and you truly can never return to it. According to the shooting script for the film, here is the screenwriter’s description of Elio’s introduction to gay sex:
When it happens – when OLIVER enters ELIO – there is a degree of pain and discomfort. ELIO flinches and fights an impulse to stop him, which OLIVER sees.
An eternity seems to pass between Elio’s reluctance to make up his mind and Oliver’s instinct to make it up for him. They f***. Bodies are entangled. Elio is flushed, turning from side to side as he alternates obscenities with Oliver’s name; Oliver’s face is more implacable, his lips softly repeating what ELIO says, until he bends forward to say to him:
Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.
This incredibly somber (almost sinister) scene elicits comparison to the use of “cue” words in sex-torture brainwashing techniques and the reliance upon “safe words” by those who engage in BDSM. It’s only at the end of the film, when Elio hears his mother call out his name, does he appear to snap out of a near stupor.
At the conclusion of the film, Elio sits crying as he gazes into the flames of a kitchen fireplace. “Call Me by Your Name” is not a tender “love-story” nor a touching tale of a young man’s “sexual awakening,” but a tragic account of an alienated teenager who looks for guidance from those who should have protected him, but instead he is indelibly injured. Today, the film speaks less about the era it takes place in, just before the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic, and more about the current situation among young and confused boys who currently make up the majority of new HIV infections:
Gay and bisexual men aged 13 to 24 accounted for 92% of new HIV diagnoses among all men in their age group…
Encouraged by supposedly enlightened parents who find nothing even slightly detrimental about homosexual activity, where self-serving acceptance masquerades as compassion, and welcomed into the gay world by persuasive older men who seem to be the only adults that actually pay attention and care – the current landscape of sexual liberation has created only disappointment and devastation. With gay men, the film sadly resonates – for in seeing someone else’s loss of innocence, it somehow makes your own childhood suffering and sexual exploitation seem okay.