A Cute Film Grounded in White Privilege and Fetishized Homomasculinity
It is 1983 and we’re transported to “Somewhere in Northern Italy.” The world is lush, covered in majestic green landscapes, chest-deep reflecting ponds, and rustic villas indicative of a history that still lives on. The world is reminiscent of a fantasy land; it is the romantic paradise for the heart, soul, and mind. Luca Guadagnino’s new film, “Call Me By Your Name,” is an exploration in that kind of passionate, rip-your-heart-out-and-give-it-to-your-lover type of emotion. While it is a cute, well-shot film, one that not only espouses the lyrical and emotional sensations of newfound love, but also successfully brings the gay narrative to the forefront of major cinema, it is a film that is equally rife with errors (or, seemingly blinded by love to the point where it doesn’t matter if they’re there).
Following the film’s tranquil beginning, this Northern Italy world becomes disrupted by the arrival of a college-age American male named Oliver (Armie Hammer). Oliver has arrived at this home, which is owned by a fellow American, Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his Italian wife, Annella (Amira Casar), to act as Professor Perlman’s classical archaeology research assistant for the summer. His arrival is seen from the home’s upstairs window by the couple’s seventeen year old son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), and his friend Marzia (Esther Garrel). Elio seems perturbed by Oliver’s arrival, for both his brash attitude and humdrum, jet-lagged demeanor, believing that he is going to be a disturbance upon the peace of the family’s relaxed Italian summer. However, Professor Perlman seems undisturbed, offering the absolute comfort to Oliver that he can provide, stating, “Our home is your home.” With Oliver set to live in Elio’s old bedroom, Elio echoes his father, uninterested, saying, “My room is your room.”
There’s very little research that seems to place during the course of the summer, as the better part of the film sees Oliver riding his bike around, hanging out with various Italian women, playing volleyball, swimming, and being an arrogant, large, masculine American. Elio, on the other hand, seems reserved (edgy), spending the majority of his time playing piano, transcribing music, reading music, reading books, and eating peaches.
Life is carefree. More importantly, while this strange, budding romance between these two men (well, man and teenager) is a slow-burn, it seems free of any sort of tension. While some outlets are referring to this film as a “meditation on the closet,” I would disagree wholly disagree.
At no point in this film is there a sense of societal tension stopping these men from taking part in their hidden pleasure. While the inner tension they feel is entirely valid, from the perspective of their self-prescribed heterosexual identities being put into question, the societal tension for staying in the closet is never once presented. There is never once a homophobic moment in the film (except for from Elio himself), Elio’s parents have a pair of lovely friends who are married gay men, and even after most people catch wind of what is happening between Oliver and Elio, well, everyone is wholly accepting of it (even Marzia, whom Elio cheated on with Oliver).
Perhaps this non-confrontation is for the best, since it depicts a world that is entirely accepting of gay love, one in which the only thing holding back love between gay men is the worry within themselves, but an idea such as this is nothing but a fallacy. While one might argue that the idea of being “closeted” is due people being afraid for themselves being “non-normative,” the actual reason is for their own protection — from homophobic family, friends, employers, strangers, etc.. The reason that these men feel no such societal tension is for the privileged lives they are living. They’re primary concern is that their heterosexuality is being put into question (of which they might not have ever questioned prior). Due to their carefree, lackadaisical lifestyles, they are able to explore their emotions both unperturbed by work and free from fear that might come from a less privileged, cosmopolitan society. Furthermore, the relationship told within this story, of two well-to-do, white, masculine men (Oliver is certainly the more masculine between the two, while Elio is slightly androgynous), is one that only furthers the fetishization of the homomasculine archetype and solidifies the boundaries defined by race relations in gay culture.
Whether for the family’s home, the surrounding, northern Italy scenery, or the film’s rich color palette, you’ll notice that Elio is living a privileged life: the peach trees around their property are constantly full and ripe, the family home has an endless amount of hired help to take care of basic duties, and every meal is lavish and as filling as you want it to be; we hardly ever see Oliver even working alongside the professor, spending the majority of his time biking through the streets and hanging with people near his age; Elio primarily sits around throughout the day — reading/writing music, reading books, eating peaches, lounging in the grass, or breast deep in some pond or river; the biggest laugh of the film comes when, after three days of ditching sex and contact with Marzia for that same thing with Oliver, Elio states that he was gone because “I had to work.” Work is a joke. None of the film’s main characters are ever seen to be working (even the coastline archaeological trip seems exciting and adventurous, not serious and painstaking).
The key theme through the movie is that money isn’t a worry, and when money isn’t a worry you can explore yourself. If this weren’t the case, if Elio were actually working and had responsibilities beyond basic pleasure, leisure, and self-realization, would he ever have ever been able to experience this coming-of-age story? Rather than being belabored by physical work, the characters’ primary means of mental consumption in life is that of emotion. For these two men, they are able to explore their love through one another through the leisure time that they both possess: cycling, swimming, tanning, dancing, hiking, i.e. anything but actually working.
This is meant to be a film about a coming-of-age romance that anyone can relate to, but it isn’t; this is a story that is unachievable for the average American. This story is the telling of affluence, in which the well-to-do are able to explore a part of themselves that the common American might not ever have time to honestly digest and think about.
Consider the end of the film: Elio softly cries in front of the fireplace as the credits roll by, all the while the home’s maids are hurriedly setting the table for their Hanukkah dinner. Elio has garnered the reason to cry only for the privilege he was given upon birth. While he has experienced the emotional toll of self-realization, love gained, and love lost, the family’s hired help has been keeping their home, meals, and lives in working order. One can imagine that they do not have the luxury, or time, to simply go undisturbed and feel what Elio feels before that fireplace.
Then again, imagine that final scene from the perspective of the maids? A sullen, privileged seventeen-year-old crying before the wood fire as they race about, preparing the table and meal to a sufficient quality for the family. Not only does it feel uncomfortable, as an outsider, with the sense of his privilege only being heightened, but it’s rather, shall we say, not all that serious or devastating.
Normative, Homomasculine, and White Gay Culture
Two white men who are both from seemingly well-to-do, educated, wealthy backgrounds; they’re both attractive, skinny/fit, and masculine in basic physical features. The skin-and-bone Elio might be more physically submissive between the two, with Armie Hammer being 6’5″ and rather brawny, but Timothée Chalamet is still strong-jawed and masculine in facial features. While Elio is rather androgynous, neither of the men can be considered femme.
Rather than presenting a gay relationship with one member being femme or gender fluid, we are given a presentation of one man and another man. This continues a narrative that keeps the face of gay culture as overtly masculine, white, classically handsome, and physically fit. This only solidifies the template of gay men acting outwardly as “men” (homomasculinity): a gay male that follows the traditional, straight male gender role (sometimes referred to as hyper-masculine).
Homomasculinity tends to identify itself through the visual manifestation of the “macho” gay body, the longing for the archetypal “man’s man,” the denial of their non-hetero sexual identity, misogyny, etc.. Similarly, by continuing this normalized perspective of gay relationships, it only works towards stifling the stereotype that is gay identity and further obscures the basis of race-relations, income-disparity, and the obfuscation of “femme” gay males.
Oliver fits the homomasculine stereotype perfectly: the classically handsome male who is fit, tall, brawny, and classically handsome (did I say classically handsome already?). Elio, on the other hand, is rail-thin, bushy haired, yet still masculine with the bone structure of his face. While he is the most feminine male between the two (playing the feminine, submissive character while with Oliver), he is still presented as a masculine figure (independent, self-serving, outwardly unemotional, and still acting as a masculine character while with Marzia). In addition to this, Elio’s coming-to-age story comes through the homoerotic exploration and fetishization of Oliver’s body and demeanor, both of which fit the homomasculine character.
For a film that aims to be progressive, it only further the fetishization of visual homomasculinity, the standards of gay beauty characteristics, and hierarchies of race that are bound within gay culture; otherwise, leaving a coming-of-age experience unattainable for the majority of gay men.
Music (Just a Note)
I wholly enjoyed the classical music utilized throughout the film. It was subtle, sometimes abrupt, yet always fitting. Considering Elio’s caress and knack for both classical music and the piano, it makes perfect sense to feature it as the primary part of the soundtrack.
Now. Sufjan Stevens.
I enjoy Sufjan Stevens as much as the next scraggly, lanky, hipsteresque white dude from the suburbs, but I think his music ruined each scene in which it was employed. It would have worked if it had just been the instrumentation (considering how minimal Stevens’ instrumentation tends to be), but the lyrics do nothing but detract from the visual attention necessary for each scene. The songs bothered me particularly due to (1) the music (and now vocals) being so loud in the mix, (2) the lyrics being so heavy-handed, “And I would say I love you/But saying it out loud is hard,” “I think of you as my brother/Although that sounds dumb,” and (3) introducing music with vocals over halfway into the film, out of nowhere, creating a jaunted, sudden shift in the auditory experience.
The only reason I can see Stevens being brought onto the soundtrack is to have a well-known name, one that will not only get people to notice the soundtrack but to become further interested in the film. Otherwise, I felt it was an unnecessary addition.
“Call Me By Your Name” clocks in at 132 minutes long, and it feels it. There is a lot of unnecessary tension that distracts from the primary story, one that causes them to refuse their love for no reason other than they’re unsure of themselves. It’s a plausible explanation for their attraction and inaction, but I do not think that their self-induced tension would have lasted that long. Furthermore, the long run-time and lackadaisical feel comes from the fact that their lives are simply relaxed, non-confrontational, and purely emotional. Thus, when time seems endless and responsibilities are null-and-void, you’re able to drag your feet and overthink the emotional choices plaguing you.
Guadagnino made a good film: it’s sincere, wholesome, and provides a voice to a narrative that is often overlooked by major cinema markets. However, when compared to Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” the film pales in comparison. “Lady Bird” is a film bound by financial decisions and personal character, the experience of lower-class middle America individuals, one that resonates with audiences at large; “Call Me By Your Name” is a film about the unperturbed 1%. While you can relate with the life of Lady Bird, Elio’s life is entirely out of grasp for any non-cosmopolitan, white, masculine American.
For a film that sells itself as progressive, “Call Me By Your Name” is a film that only furthers the notion that financial security is needed for self-actualization, that homomasculinity is the visual norm for gay men, and that race-relations work towards further cementing the privilege and entitlement of the well-to-do White class.