t’s a big deal in the gay community when a film that deals directly with homosexual desire makes it to the big screen. “Call Me by Your Name,” directed by Luca Guadagnino from a James Ivory script, was released last October in North America, and by the time it made it to Guadagnino’s native Italy months later the film had won numerous awards and been nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture.
Though eager to see it, Alberto and I were surprised to find that it wasn’t playing in many Milan venues. Moreover, it failed to generate the kind of buzz Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” kicked up. Sorrentino’s 2013 drama about a melancholy journalist was nominated and won Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.
Ivory’s “Call Me by Your Name” screenplay was based 2007 novel of the same name by American writer André Acimanis with Guadagnino’s adaptation described as a coming-of-age story. Set in a small town in northern Italy in 1983, it’s the story of a summer romance between Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old living in Italy, and his professor father’s 24-year-old American assistant, doctoral student Oliver (Armie Hammer).
Initially, I heard concerns regarding the age of Eliot, a minor, for his “sexual” involvement with an older man. Yet we live in schizophrenic times. On one hand, any adult or child can watch explicit pornography, heterosexual and homosexual, on the web. On the other, the mainstream portrayal of the healthy sexual growth and development of 17-year-old boy who has a fling with a 24-year-old man enters a no-go zone, particularly in America. According to the 2005 Durex Global Sex Survey, the average American has their first sexual experience at 16.9 years of age, while the global average is 17.3. A psychoanalyst friend who is much better informed about film than I am scoffed at the age complaints, calling them “…nothing more than hypocritical American moralism.”
This brings us to the film itself and another set of problems. In interviews, veteran writer Ivory said his original screenplay contained “all sorts of nudity,” but that he was forced to rethink his approach. Apparently, both American leads, Hammer and Chalamet, signed contracts that prohibited full-frontal nudity. “It’s just this American attitude,” Ivory, whose script won an Oscar, told Variety. “Nobody seems to care that much, or be shocked, about a totally naked woman. It’s the men. This is something that must be so deeply cultural that one should ask: ‘Why?'”
Guadagnino has described the film as “family-oriented,” claiming he had no interest in including explicit sex scenes, though he did, despite his reservations, decide not to remove a scene in which Elio masturbates into a pitted peach. He insisted time and again he wasn’t out to make a “gay” movie.
When the distributor, Sony Pictures used what it called a “misleading” promotional image of Elio and his girlfriend, reaction to the advertisement on social media was deservedly negative. Daniel Megarry of Gay Times described it as “an attempt to “‘straight-wash’ the movie’s predominant same-sex romance,” while the Guardian‘s Benjamin Lee said the advert “focused on denying the film’s queerness,” calling the movie itself “…tender, erotic, awkward, poignant and unarguably, unavoidably, unmistakably gay.”
Also unsettling, at least to me, was the movie’s uncritical presentation of the privileged class bubble in which homosexual desire could take place and be all-but-accepted. Elio’s parents all but encourage his relationship with Oliver.
“Maurice,” the brilliant 1987 adaption of E.M. Foster’s novel, produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by Ivory, openly confronts the issue of homosexual desire in the specific context of English class privilege. But Guadagnino backs away from the challenge. He instead creates an idealized world in which being rich somehow seems to resolve all other social tensions, such as, for example, being homosexual and Jewish in an overwhelmingly Catholic country.
I can’t say Alberto and I didn’t enjoy the film. We did. We were swayed by cinematography that starred northern Italy’s stunning rural landscapes. We also enjoyed the Elio character. But faint praise can be damning. The film’s core feels unrealistic if not insincere. As a result, it lacks the passion of youth discovering new sexual horizons.
When the credits rolled, people filed out calmly the way they do after seeing any nice movie. In comparison, I remember back to the stunned expressions on the faces of people, especially gay men, who looked as if they might burst into tears at any moment after the end of Ang Lee’s 2005 “Brokeback Mountain,” based on a short story by Annie Proulx and co-written for the screen by novelist Larry McMurtry.
Unfortunately, by pretending fundamental sexual frictions don’t exist, a film that could have been so much more, is, to my mind, just a pleasant little romance between two young guys, and a peach.