Based on the 2007 novel by Andre Aciman, Call Me By Your Name has come to be seen as something of a watershed moment for queer cinema, not least because of its widespread acclaim and visibility, culminating with its nomination for Best Picture at the 2018 Academy Awards. Set in Italy in the early 1980s, it follows the burgeoning relationship between Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet), a seventeen-year old, and Oliver (Armie Hammer), his father’s assistant – a situation that involves a considerable degree of sexual awakening from both parties. Right from the outset, the disparity in age is front and centre, with Elio frequently depicted in nymph-like poses against Arcadian backdrops, while Oliver is associated with a more robust muscularity. In some ways, that’s a necessary statement of purpose at a time in which Hollywood still naturalises the conjunction of older men and younger women, while proportionately pathologising any other romantic or sexual coupling in which there’s a significant disparity in age. At the same time, however, the difference in age, and the sense of something incommensurate about their life experiences, goes no small way to distending and embroidering the erotic tapestry between these two men, resulting in a quite touching and moving atmosphere that often feels on a par with the kinds of soulful, yearning gay fiction releases by gay presses around the time that the film is set.
At the same time, to call the film’s libidinal drive “gay” doesn’t quite make sense either, since much of the action feels poised just at the moment before gayness – both as an idea and as a word – entered the mainstream lexicon. While that may produce a somewhat pre-gay kind of atmosphere, it also feels post-gay at the same time, as if looking back to the moment just before gayness was really consolidated as an identity politics – which also happens to be the moment just before AIDS put a check on gay self-realisation – as a blueprint for a more reparative, inclusive and flexible sexual future. In doing so, Luca Guadagnino takes his cues from an earlier era of gay erotica, in which the goal wasn’t merely graphic depictions of sex, but an evocation of an entire erotic universe unavailable, except in the most coded and closeted way, in mainstream media. One of the most striking things about gay erotica from this time, whose impulses persisted up until the rise of widespread internet accessibility, is the extent to which even the most hardcore impulses are subsumed into – and considered quite compatible with – the most delicate and languorous erotica, in what often feels like a riposte to the divisions between romance and sex that drove the parallel evolution of Hollywood and adult film over the previous decade.
If there’s a more recent analogy for the kind of fully-fledged erotica on display here, then it’s probably an odd subgenre of gay cinema that exists somewhere between art house film and erotic proper, and which came into its own with the rise of straight-to-DVD releases. In the dying days of DVD rental stores, these films became more prominent, and contributed to incongruously expansive LGBT sections even in stores that might not be expected to have much in the way of a LGBT demographic. What makes Call Me By Your Name different from these releases and from the heritage of erotic that preceded them, is in part a matter of production values and intended audience, since part of the audacity of the film lies in offering this kind of erotic register not only as an object of interest to general audiences, but as an object lesson in how to experience, embrace and engage with eroticism itself. In that sense, it represents something of a corrective – a revisionist slant on a stereotypical equation of homosexuality with brute, cold, mechanical sex, with Guadagnino insisting that it is in homoeroticism that the true lessons and revelations of genuine eroticism actually lie.
To that end, Guadagnino shapes an atmosphere and ambience of sumptuous eroticism, utterly discarding the false transparency of the Grindr era in favour of a more tremulous and tactile fascination with moments of missed contact, and moments of first contact. Subdued and almost stultified by a pervasive atmosphere of burnished boredom and languorous ennui, the film is suffused with the restlessness of bodies that don’t know what they desire – and especially male bodies that don’t know what they desire. In the process, homoeroticism is both conflated with ostensibly separate aesthetic pleasures, and framed as the most profound culmination of every conceivable aesthetic register, with Chalamet and Hammer spending the vast majority of the film shirtless, surrounded by fruit, food and other motifs of fecundity, against which they strike one lithe erotic pose after another. Whether they’re reclining on couches discoursing on Bach and Liszt, or dancing sweatily to Italo Disco, they imbue every aesthetic object they touch with their own erotic valency, until every great aesthetic gesture in the Western canon comes to feel like a way of negotiating the possibility and prospect of homoeroticism as a integral facet of everyday life. Far from homosexuality being presented as an unnatural aberration, here the two men gather the entire natural world into their smouldering gazes, discovering a kind of vegetal being in their ceaseless, cruisey circumambulation of one another, as they take us through one pastoral vista after another, seeming to subsume themselves back into a tale as old as time itself.
In many ways, that central figurative gesture – of homosexuality as the most natural state of affairs – is the most radical gesture of the film, building an environment in which homoeroticism is perpetually nurtured and comforted, and culminating with an extraordinary father-son discussion in which Elio’s father endorses his alternative choice of father-figure in Oliver, and wistfully reflects upon his own thwarted homoerotic impulses. As might be expected, that builds an enormous amount of sexual suspense, with Guadagnino beautifully capturing the eroticism attendant upon the sheer proximity of male bodies, through an endlessly inventive array of shots in which Elio and Oliver lie together, massage each other’s backs and legs, and touch each other in all manner of sensuous ways and places. Against the austerity and aggression attendant on so much erotica, Guadagnino nails the playful, exploratory and inquisitive element of eroticism – the same curiosity that Michel Foucault once suggested was necessary for the relation between men of different ages who “face each other without terms or convenient words, with nothing to assure them about the meaning of the movement that carries them toward each other” and so for that reason “have to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless, which is friendship: that is to, say, the sum of everything through which they can give each other pleasure.”
That inventiveness is the subject of Call Me By Your Name, in which, to use Foucault’s terms once more, Elio and Oliver don’t use homoeroticism “to discover in oneself the truth of one’s sex, but, rather…use one’s sexuality henceforth to arrive at a multiplicity of relationships.” In this case, however, those relationships aren’t with other people, but with the world around them, with their sensuous explorations and expeditions revealing the aesthetic majesty of the universe through the surfaces and crevasses of their own bodies – and vice versa – in a kind of Proustian designation of homoeroticism as a consummate and culminative work of art, pre-empting and containing every other medium and message. Within this unique haptic language, every form of body-to-body contact, however incidental and infinitestimal, carries with it not merely an erotic charge, but a new prospect of being and becoming, with the endless perambulations punctuated by philosophical fragments, from the pre-Socratics to Heidegger, that insist on the protean flux of the world. Hence the central erotic tableau of the film – Elio and Oliver’s bodies intertwined with each other, and with their environment, in ever more creative and complicated ways, as they perpetually come together, break out of, and then reconfigure what amounts to a long and wondrous hug, albeit a hug that imbues the sheer act of holding with a renewed and sublime tactility.
While some critics might have taken issue with the film’s lack of overt depictions of sex, then, this felt like anything but an act of censorship to me. Instead, Call Me By Your Name suggests that overt depictions of sex would themselves have been the act of censorship, occluding the emergent eroticism and erotic world-building that allows the film to position homoeroticism as the driving force behind aesthetic and ethical subjectivity. In a way, too, overt depictions of sex wouldn’t be quite true to the film’s identity politics, which are less about either character “discovering” that they are gay, or having a moment of epiphany in the midst of a single act – the enormous pressure and burden of more hardcore erotica – so much as a sense of transitioning into a wider and fuller erotic identity that can handle the homoeroticism that – the film suggests – subtends all types of erotic communion and selfhood. If there is any fault to the film, it’s perhaps that the earlier sections can be a little inert or absurd in their erotic sumptuousness, often recalling a “tasteful” gay coffee table book as much as anything else, especially given the stilted bilingual exchanges that drive so much of the early part of the script. Yet that willingness to embrace the possible absurdity of real eroticism is also what gives the film, and the two men, their wonderful vulnerability, curiosity and charm, along with their resonance for so many different audiences and bodies, in one of the most breathlessly tactile, magical and beautiful erotic exercises in many years.