Luca Guadagnino’s new film, “Call Me by Your Name,” does everything it is supposed do — well, almost everything.
Based on the 2007 novel by André Aciman and set in the Italian countryside during summer in the late 1980s, the film has Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) meet and fall in love in what feels almost like a two-hour-and-12-minute dream sequence.
A dream sequence that is understandably difficult to wake up from, as it would be preferable to exist there for just a bit longer. Guadagnino’s film is every bit as intoxicating as you would expect from the laudatory reviews. And with Chalamet and Hammer (now Golden Globe and SAGnominees) at the helm, it’s nigh impossible not to leave the theater nostalgic for fresh apricot juice and a warm Italian summer.
But in the context of today’s cultural conversation about queer representation, it may leave something to be desired. Especially after the director’s comments about why he didn’t include any explicit sex scenes, although sex between the two main characters is a central theme in the book. His reasoning furthers the supposition that in order for queer stories to be marketable, they must be presented in a way that will not alienate straight audiences.
“I wasn’t interested at all,” Guadagnino explained in a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “The tone would’ve been very different from what I was looking for. I wanted the audience to completely rely on the emotional travel of these people and feel first love. I didn’t want the audience to find any difference or discrimination toward these characters. It was important to me to create this powerful universality, because the whole idea of the movie is that the other person makes you beautiful — enlightens you, elevates you. The other is often confronted with rejection, fear or a sense of dread, but the welcoming of the other is a fantastic thing to do, particularly in this historical moment.”
Perhaps Guadagnino’s hesitancy comes in part because LGBTQ folks of his generation (Guadagnino is 46 and openly gay) were less likely to see such blatantly queer narratives — like LGBTQ characters leading a film, as opposed to being relegated to one-liner sidekicks — represented in popular culture. He seems to believe that by making a film more palatable for straight audiences, it would be able to move the needle.
However, the media available for consumption in a postmillennial digital age has become increasingly queer (although there can always, and should always, be more), so I imagine the film would have needed to be less hetero-normalized to move it more. We’re now in a post-“Moonlight,” post-“Carol,” post-“The Kids Are Alright,” post-“I Love You Phillip Morris,” post-“Brokeback,” post post post world. Guadagnino would have done greater justice to the film and its audience to deliver a more vivid depiction of queer life — which is far messier and complicated and impolite than the film would have you believe.
Film adaptations are often met with criticism from fans of the source content for not remaining true to the story. Many cut scenes for time or to create a more linear story line. It would have made sense for Guadagnino to say he was omitting sex scenes for the sake of achieving a PG-13 rating (instead of an R, which it still has) because that would help it reach a broader audience. However, claiming that omitting explicitly gay sex will bolster the movie’s ability to “create this powerful universality” is indicative of how media ensconces queer life and is inherently shaming of gay sex.
In her recent book “How to Fall in Love With Anyone,” Mandy Len Catron writes: “When it comes to love, I’m no longer interested in annihilating the differences. I want to engage with alternative love stories without co-opting them, without heteronomalizing them, and without saying, ‘Here’s what we (straight, monogamous, cisgendered, able-bodied people) have to learn from them’ — even though I do think there is a lot to learn.” If Guadagnino is attempting to find “universality” in “Call Me by Your Name,” then he simply isn’t doing justice to the story. In fact, he’s doing the opposite. If the mainstream, the majority, is to learn to accept queer narratives, it must be able to see them in unfiltered, honest ways, even if that means working through initial discomfort.
Plus, sex between the two main characters is central to the power of the book. Pages and pages are dedicated not only to sex but also to the resulting passion, shame and acceptance these characters feel, and the beauty of how it emboldens them and their relationship. Most books are not necessarily visual, so imagination is required to fill in the gaps. Movies, however, are inherently so — and have the ability to make the implicit explicit. In his direction, Guadagnino chose the path of least resistance.
Knee-jerk critics of this argument might assume that my side is just looking for the titillation of sex on-screen. But in 2017, one does not have to look far to find sex, simulated or otherwise, on film, TV or the Internet. Rather, what is missing is the true telling of queer stories.
It certainly feels that what’s being billed as the gayest film of 2017 — which should have been a movie for the “thems” of the world, those who are hungry for more realistic representations of their lives — instead tried its hardest to become a movie for the “us-es,” a majority audience. A majority audience that likely would have been more than amenable to the inclusion of explicit sex scenes.
It is not the responsibility of marginalized groups to make their stories palatable for those outside their communities. It is their responsibility to tell authentic stories that represent the wide spectrum of the human experience — which can sometimes be uncomfortable. It falls on those in majority positions to see these stories and recognize that they are necessary and universal.
As Guadagnino said, it can be true that “[another] person makes you beautiful — enlightens you, elevates you.” And it is also true that for some men, that is another man, and sometimes, those men will have sex, and that should be part of being beautiful, not alienating to anyone. At the very least — those who have both read the book and seen the film might share this sentiment — Oliver could have eaten that damn peach.