There's a moment halfway through Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights when, on New Year's Eve 1979, Scotty J. (Philip Seymour Hoffman) kisses pornstar Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), with whom he is infatuated, and is harshly rejected. Embarrassed, Scotty gets into his car and launches into a heartbreaking tirade of self-loathing: “I'm a fucking idiot… fucking idiot, fucking idiot, fucking idiot…”
Scotty's loneliness is just one example of the many obstacles in mainstream cinema that gay characters often face on their search for happiness. In Philadelphia, Tom Hanks plays a man who sues his employers on the grounds they fired him because he has AIDS. Pride and My Beautiful Laundrette depict the experience of the LGBTQ community under Margaret Thatcher, notorious for her Section 28 policy that discouraged the promotion of homosexuality in schools. Carol and Brokeback Mountain feature secret love affairs at risk of discrimination, prosecution and violence in conservative societies. Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is a coming-of-age story about a mistreated African-American boy bullied because of “the way he walks”, while Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Colour shows Adèle Exarchopoulos questioning her sexuality throughout her adolescence whilst in love with an older woman.
By contrast, the stakes in Luca Guadagnino's extraordinary Call Me By Your Name, based on André Aciman's novel, could hardly be lower for the central couple. Grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer) stays with the Perlman family at their Italian villa for the summer and has an instant effect on 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet). They are white, wealthy, and Elio's parents couldn't be more tolerant. So what makes it so devastatingly sad?
Firstly, Chalamet is beautifully natural as Elio, conveying his jealousy, fierce precocity and crushing heartache with ease. Hammer exudes a cool confidence as Oliver, but one that conceals vulnerability. Michael Stuhlbarg, as Elio's father, delivers a life-affirming monologue towards the end of the film with profound generosity. But more on that later.
We see ourselves in these characters. We identify with their flaws and desires. We cry with them when they are sad. Not only does screenwriter James Ivory pull off the difficult feat of adapting a first-person narrative for the screen, he communicates the themes of love, identity and separation with as much relatability as Aciman's novel.
Moonlight's Oscar victory was proof – not that we needed it – that LGBTQ cinema is not niche. Indeed, that the story of a poor, homosexual, African-American boy resonated with a middle-class, heterosexual, English man has less to do with sublime storytelling than the fact we are all human beings who are capable of empathy. Call Me captures a similar universality.
Another key element of the film is restraint. This has courted some controversy, with many asking why we see Elio having sex with Marzia (Esther Garrel), a girl with feelings for him, but the camera pans away when he goes to bed with Oliver. In one much-discussed scene, Elio gives new meaning to the term ‘peaches and cream', but this too is implied. I think the love scene is given greater significance by its privacy and is closer to the source – although in the novel Oliver goes one step further with the peach.
Restraint in LGBTQ cinema is a contentious topic. Blue is the Warmest Colour was rebuked by some – including source graphic novelist, Julie Maroh – for the tone and filming conditions of its explicit sex scenes, while American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis suggested that Moonlight's sexual discretion was conservative and blamed Jenkins' heterosexuality, almost entirely ignoring that the source play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, was written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, a gay man.
Admittedly, to the disappointment of Ivory, Call Me's two lead actors had a no-nudity clause written into their contracts – something Guadagnino said was necessary to ‘meet the standards of the market' – whereas Garrel does appear nude. (It may be interesting – but not essential – to note that Guadagnino and Ivory are gay, but Aciman is not.) In response, Francis Lee tweeted that nudity was ‘important for the truth' in his own gay romance, God's Own Country, which, in contrast to Call Me, features a graphic (and muddy) oral sex scene.
Call Me thrives on subtlety anyway. Elio and Oliver spend most of the summer giving each other suggestive looks; Elio only speaks out after hearing a story that asks whether it is better to admit our feelings for others or die having stayed silent. As in Brokeback Mountain, much of the sensuality and sense of oneness comes from the sharing of clothes. The closing scenes feature characters trying not to cry, rather than the explosive outpouring of emotion in Blue is the Warmest Colour.
Perhaps the story's power lies in the fact that Elio and Oliver only just miss out on happiness. Nothing overtly tragic, just a ‘life lesson.' This is reminiscent of Andrew Haigh's Weekend, about two men's one-night stand that turns, briefly, into something beautiful. Call Me, similarly, is not a story of forbidden love, but one of love with a time limit.
Or perhaps, as is the way with all great films, Call Me By Your Name gives back to its audience what they bring to it. My first viewing left me a sobbing wreck and I know that what provoked such a visceral response is unique only to me. For art to evoke a memory is one thing; for it to evoke a dream is another feeling entirely. Although we have not discussed it, I know my companion was moved for probably equally personal reasons.
All of which brings me back to Michael Stuhlbarg's monologue. For those who haven't seen it, I won't spoil a single word. But it is about the importance of feeling and understanding oneself; about how emotional pain reminds us what it is to be human; about how that pain, however overwhelming, means we have been lucky enough to experience something truly wonderful.
Call Me By Your Name is available to buy on DVD and Blu Ray.
Words by Logan Jones @LoganOnFilm
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