It’s been weeks and, still, I’ve yet to excise Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous Call Me by Your Name from my mind. I’d locked in a Melbourne International Film Festival session soon after 2017 bookings opened; with some pre-googling, I’d begun looking forward to salacious scenes in Italian summer, some shirtlessness, and maybe a sneaky pash or three. The usual queer-cinema fare, basically: the film was my ticket to two hours of tantalising fantasy. But Call Me by Your Name took me for a spin, wrung me out, wreaked havoc on my sensibilities both as a critic and as a person who identifies as queer.
This isn’t a traditional piece of criticism; there are countless others who have already tackled Guadagnino’s film, unpacking its utopic portrayals, deconstruction of desire, and attention to period and personal detail. Nor is this a discussion of adaptation—I haven’t read André Aciman’s 2007 novel, though I’ve heard it boasts a more developed, possibly more gutting ending. This is a piece about a prolonged moment in which cinema and spectator have become entwined in an impasse of affect. I’m responding to the film not as text but as testimony; I’m writing on it as someone whose experiences match those exposed on screen.
Call Me by Your Name tells the story of a teenage boy, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), who spends the summer idling in his family’s bucolic estate. Waited on hand and foot, he spends his days immersed in classical music, swimming in their pool or the nearby creek, chilling with friends (though not literally, given the saturated golden sun, quite-short shorts and endless ice-cold juice) and chatting with his cosmopolitan scholar parents. His father, a renowned art historian and archaeologist, takes on a doctoral intern every summer, and this year it’s Oliver (Armie Hammer)—a handsome American who is clever, captivating and, as we and Elio soon find out, queer. Over time, son and student form a bond that bears all the hallmarks of archetypal cinematic romance: beginning combative and competitive, it comes to a stalemate, then blossoms after the discovery of shared values, latent attraction and mutual affection. But the early eighties isn’t very welcoming of challenges to conformity, and the weight of ‘real life’ slowly encroaches on Elio and Oliver’s idyllic relationship.
None of this is particularly original, of course. The trajectory that sees two individuals falling for each other then having that love fall apart is a familiar refrain in queer cinema; in recent English-language fare alone, this has manifested in works as manifold as Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), Tom Ford’s A Single Man (2009), Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl (2015) and, on local shores, Neil Armfield’s Holding the Man (2015). (While Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015) and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016) have avoided overt tragedy, there is, undoubtedly, a pervasive melancholy in the stories of both.) Arguably having its origins in the hyper-moralistic Hays Code—which, in the thirties to late fifties, forced Hollywood to demonise any whiff of sexual ‘perversion’—this trope can be read as insidious hegemonic indoctrination: if films continually paint queer relationships as doomed, it’s said, audiences may become convinced that real-world ones, too, have no hope of succeeding.
Yet film is also catharsis—a vicarious interaction with a world that is both removed from and resonant with our own. We ‘live out’ our difficulties on screen and derive second-hand empathy from collective commiseration. These tragic stories draw us in because they channel the challenges of contemporary queer life: In Australia, same-sex attracted individuals are up to 14 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. Six out of every 10 queer young people have experienced verbal abuse, and 2 out of 10, physical abuse. South Australia is the last state stronghold for the reprehensible ‘gay panic’ legal defence of murder, with Queensland only overturning it in March this year. Across the world, marriage equality is enshrined in law in only 22 countries (plus Germany, pending formalities), compared to 74 where non-heterosexual sexual contact is outlawed (of which 13 deem it punishable by death). Here lies an unceasing filmic feedback loop, it seems, with art and life embroiled in a complicated—and complicating—ideological cycle.
Part of what makes Call Me by Your Name so arresting is its ability to capture the tragedy of such an endpoint: it shows that reciprocated intimacy isn’t enough, and that sustaining a relationship is infinitely trickier than sparking one. Elio and Oliver’s love story is contained—characterised by not just restraint (subtly nudging fingers while standing close together, or checking ’round dark corners while making out against walls) but also finitude. The end is always in sight: end of the swim, end of the bike ride, end of the night, end of summer (the ultimate frontier signalling the return to ‘real life’ and, thus, the ‘unreality’ of their romance). Queer people know this more than most; some of our most intimate moments are bounded by temporality. A dance with a stranger until the lights come on. A night for an app-enabled hook-up. An alarm set so you’ll have left before family breakfast. A bond created and cut short during a trip away. This temporality—the idea that it’s probably temporary because, we’re told, our love isn’t normal, is just a phase—compels us to not merely dive in but drown in it. As I wrote in my poem “Fingerprint” for Plaything Magazine:
[…] I know we’ll do this again
in two days, two weeks—too
long for me to think about right
now. This is all I have: to hope
is to take a risk. […]
In Elio’s case, his frustrations—sexual, circumstantial—build to such a degree that he must vent by performing that now-infamous solo sex act involving fruit. When Oliver discovers him (and the evidence) soon after, it’s all very bittersweet, the joy of togetherness intermingled with the consuming fear of being torn apart.
But Call Me by Your Name’s potency lies not just in its depiction of tragic love—of love kept at bay by time and geography and the exacting expectations of a heteronormative, patriarchal society—but also in its skilful portrayal of the intersection of queerness, age and ennui. His youthful schedule largely empty, Elio rattles off excuses to accompany his paramour running errands. He wishes an entire day away, incessantly checking his watch until the hour arrives when he can be with Oliver again (midnight, no less—that filmic beacon of liminality and pivotal action). These scenes resonate because, indeed, queer people spend a lot of time in purgatory. We wait for the right time to come out, then wait for the storm to settle and for family and friends to come around. We wait—in this predominantly heterosexual world—to meet a queer person we’re attracted to, to find out whether they like us back, to see if the relationship can work. We wait for our sex acts and sexual expression to not be seen as monstrous, for medicalisation and criminalisation to be eroded by tides of tolerance, for our romantic ties to be considered true enough to be worthy of legal recognition.
Early in the film, a shrewd bit of presaging sees Elio’s mother quote The Heptaméron: ‘Is it better to speak or die?’ That Elio and Oliver eventually confess their affections to each other perhaps addresses this question, but, here, we’re also reminded of the figurative death that bedevils queer existence: the temporality of our encounters compels us to act decisively, lest we lose the moment or the courage of our convictions, our hearts. And then, in a crafty bit of mirroring, the film’s penultimate sequence shows Elio’s father consoling his heartbroken son with words about the twin gifts of immense loss and immense love. Certainly, as the persistence of the ‘tragic queer’ trope attests, queer love is tied to grief. We mourn not just for our failed relationships but also because—despite our bravery and hopeful belief—the world we live in makes it difficult, sometimes impossible, for those relationships to be viable. A heteronormative, patriarchal society is a fenceless bend in an icy mountain road; you drive as carefully as you can, but you’re always still at risk of falling off the edge.
Sure, Call Me by Your Name is a romantic text—Guadagnino describes it as ‘being of the “idyll” genre’—that sentimentalises loss, and parenthood, and wealth, and adolescence; reality is much more complex than this. The story does nod to such nuances, as in Elio’s vexed friendship with Marzia (Esther Garrel), which illustrates the way we can hurt people we love as we traverse the bumpy path towards an even greater love. It may not be a perfect piece of queer cinema, but it does function well as a provocation to reflect on what it means to be queer today. And for me, in the end, the film is about time: getting caught up in love, getting over love, getting on with life, getting life. Like teenage Elio—watching by the window, lazing near the pool, weeping by the fire—we queers can’t wait to grow up and be taken seriously, quietly hoping that things for us will one day get better.
The deadline for enrolling to vote or updating electoral details for the Australian marriage-equality plebiscite is Thursday 24 August. Head to http://www.aec.gov.au/enrol/ for more information.
Adolfo Aranjuez is editor of Metro, Australia’s oldest film and media periodical. He is also consulting editor for Liminal magazine, subeditor of Screen Education magazine, and a freelance writer, speaker and dancer. Adolfo is one of the Melbourne Writers Festival’s 30 Under 30 and a participant in the Midsumma Futures development program for queer artists. http://www.adolfoaranjuez.com