A Theater of the Impossible

The problem with Call Me by Your Name

Illustrator: Jade Mulcahy

Our story begins not in a colorful town in northern Italy, but in a drab one in southeastern Wisconsin.

There, I used to hide in my bed with a weathered MacBook and watch all the gay movies I could find for free online. Each had its own cinematic nuance, but a common thread united them nonetheless: from “Speedway Junky” to “Head On,” all depicted queer relationships as inevitable failures leading only to heartbreak. Whether friendly or romantic, the relationships I saw taught me that I would live an unhappy, unhealthy, and unfulfilling life, distracted only by the pursuit of increasingly promiscuous interactions. And herein lies the first problem with “Call Me by Your Name.”

Although the setting and cinematography are more gorgeous than its predecessors, “Call Me by Your Name” is still just the same hetero-cinematographic viewpoint on homosexual and queer relationships with a facelift. Sure, the movie-going public has become more comfortable with the idea of two men kissing on screen than they were in 2006 when “Brokeback Mountain” appeared in movie theaters, but not comfortable enough not to pan away from anything beyond that. When Elio and Oliver go to bed together for the first time, the camera swings toward a tree just outside the window. However, we see a bird’s-eye view of the conjugal heterosexual relationship between Elio and Marzia, seventeen-year-olds having what could otherwise be called a cliché, teen-movie, sexual awakening. No matter how you interpret the filmic merits of an arborescent effacement of homosexual intimacy, there is a clear gap between how heterosexual and homosexual relationships are depicted early on.

Despite this, Luca Guadagnino still has an argument for his exclusion of the Elio and Oliver sex scene: “I refuse with strong firmness that I was coy in not showing that, because I think that Oliver and Elio…displayed a very strong intimacy and closeness in so many ways and it was enough (Guadagnino, quoted by Dry).” It is both disheartening and othering in a subtly harmful way that Guadagnino speaks about gay sex as though it were somehow outside of the closeness and intimacy he describes.

There is a clear gap between how heterosexual and homosexual relationships are depicted early on.

Though by itself the lack of a visually explicit sex scene is unimportant, juxtaposed with an in-your-face heterosexuality, the difference becomes problematic, distracting the viewer with the implicit—that a gay relationship should be secret, invisible, unspoken—and pushing them out of the film’s world. What we end up with is a theater of the impossible centered on a foregone, and ultimately broken, conclusion. What we lose is a valuable meditation on desire as it is eclipsed by the specter of cliché.

And that is the tragedy of “Call Me by Your Name’s” failure as queer art. It espouses the same view of queer relationships as inevitably flawed in light of the ideal, heterosexual relationships flourishing around them—a fundamentally clichéd perspective. Clichés teach us nothing new about how to look at the world, which is exactly what, if you see no other value in us, we marginalized peoples can bring to art: new perspectives.

I understand that straight artists have often misunderstood and misrepresented us as being sex obsessed, single-faceted characters interested only in the physical, but that is precisely why Guadagnino should have included the sex scene. By his own logic, the sex would have been intimate and close, a perspective on gay sex unfamiliar to straight audiences. It would have complicated both “Head On’s” final monologue centered on casual sex and “Speedway Junky’s” depiction of queer friendship, which still ends in a dramatization of unattainability that cinema had already decided was inherent to queer lives. As such, when “Call Me by Your Name” ends with Elio crying alone after learning Oliver will marry a woman, viewers are shown that same cliché.

But that is not our story, and if we want a truly queer cinema, we must demand better. We must demand nuanced queer stories where the presence of societal pressures does not determine the possibility of our relationships. Queer desire should be put carefully and lovingly on display, probed and interrogated until it gives us something beautiful and new. In “Call Me by Your Name,” desire again tried to show us what it could teach but got lost in the comfortable rhythm of telling an old story the same way.