Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name is a beautiful film. Oliver and Elio share a seductive but tender romance, nurtured slowly in a glistening and lush countryside. Reflecting our genuine hunger for queer representation in mainstream, commercial film, this affair on the silver screen has garnered lavish praise from gay audiences and critics. In an Out piece that labeled the film “Movie of the Year,” Bret Easton Ellis described Call Me by Your Name as “the movie generations of gay men have been waiting for: the fullest, least condescending expression of gay desire yet brought to mainstream film.”
But Call Me by Your Name, as Ellis rightfully acknowledges, seems to refuse to engage with gayness at all. The film is typical of our fetish for straight-acting romance, here presenting a sort of country house fairy tale in which the two leads just happen to be men. It is a summer-affair flick, but with two cocks instead of one. True, it moves away from the aggressive masc-for-masc erotics of this year’s God’s Own Country and Beach Rats. But in its high-class, pastoral isolation, Call Me by Your Name depicts an enchanted utopia where the social realities of gayness cannot intrude.
All utopias, however, are well-manicured lies.
For gayness itself — gayness as a way of feeling, a way of engaging the world, an identity, a community threatened by disease and violence — has been carefully pushed into the closet. In its place, we must watch as Oliver and Elio traffic their seduction through discussions of Arabic philology, Greco-Roman art, and military history. Oliver and Elio debate Bach and Liszt, but certainly not Bette and Joan. The elevated, European high-culture seems to provide a more civilized register than would the degenerate world of femme theatrics or camp. There are moments when the discussions of Greco-Roman sculpture blur into suggestive hints about the male body, similar to screenwriter James Ivory’s Maurice. But these are ultimately part of a long history of worshipping the masculine form rather than a particularly gay male gaze.
Ellis brazenly celebrates the film’s magical isolation as a liberation from the “distractions” of AIDS, bullying, and fem cliché that supposedly constrain queer filmmakers. It is reckless to praise this move as a progressive step toward a post-gay cinema, a stance that toes the line of homophobia. Are AIDS and bullying and fem affect mere distractions from some imagined purity of straightened-out desire? These so-called distractions are simply too gay. They uncomfortably remind us that we are more than our “sexual orientation” alone; we are a community, a subjectivity, a culture, an identity.
Is there any room for gay expressions of sexual desire and intimacy? Some have already criticized the film’s coy and cowardly framing of Oliver and Elio’s sex (or lack thereof). More interesting, however, is the film’s choice to rewrite the infamous peach scene of the novel. After Elio masturbates into a peach, Oliver finds the cum-filled fruit and, in the novel, eats it. Elio watches him and narrates, “I thought even lovemaking didn’t go so far … I could tell he was tasting it at that very instant. Something that was mine was in his mouth, more his than mine now.” It is a remarkable and honest representation of gay desire, in all its carnal complexity.
But Oliver does not eat the cum in the film, setting the peach down after a short struggle with Elio. We are refused the salacious filth and sexualized male flesh that give gay culture its radical power. Instead, we get prudery and polished romance justified as pure and magical love. The post-gay world is too civilized for naughty gay boys and certainly cannot be bothered by the unfortunate deviancy of gay culture. Call Me by Your Name is a sensitive and passionate film, but it hardly seems gay in any dynamic sense, other than through the sexual organs of its two leads.
A cosmopolitan, intellectual milieu fills the sun-bathed, Fascist-era villa of Call Me by Your Name as bits of Greco-Roman art, German literature, and Italian cooking decorate the frame — but the queens are for sure locked in the closet.
BEN RATSKOFF is a writer based in Los Angeles and a doctoral student in Comparative Literature at UCLA. Follow him on Twitter @brat_skoff.