Growing Up Queer with ‘Call Me By Your Name’

Growing Up Queer with ‘Call Me By Your Name’

At the core of Guadagnino's film lies a young man's desire and sexual fluidity.

At the core of Guadagnino's film lies a young man's desire and sexual fluidity.

Text: E.R. PULGAR

Luca Guadagnino's critically lauded Call Me By Your Name is set against the backdrop of a classic Italian summer: apricot trees in bloom, cobblestone streets, long night swims that precede lovemaking in the forest. It's against this colorful, ethereal backdrop that the affair between Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) unfolds; the former gives up his room for the latter, and soon chagrin about sharing a bathroom gives way to nights dancing in the street inches from each other's mouths.

I remember discussing the film with my gay friends and being surprised at the mixed reviews. A lot of their complaints stemmed the age difference between the two lovers, the fact that two straight men were playing queer characters, that nobody was talking about the AIDS crisis that was starting to sweep the U.S. at the time that this film is set. Few of them gave merit to one of the film's big victories: a positive, heartbreakingly real portrayal of a young bisexual male coming of age.

Elio's multifaceted desires lies at the core of this film, his lovemaking to childhood friend Marzia (Esther Garrell) indistinguishable—and, in one instance, a few hours apart—from him and Oliver's intimacy, although we clearly know who he favors. Elio's archeology professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) also allows for the film's unapologetic use of Greco-Roman mythology, a time in history known as much for it's art work as it's sexual ambiguity. Between excavating statues and the opening shots of male torsos and posed statues, Elio becomes a kind of Apollo figure. The god of poetry and music who had both male and female lovers is mirrored by a polyglot Italian boy with soft features effortlessly playing Bach on piano and guitar. We can even see echoes of a pederast relationship in the main love story, although one more evenly grounded than just a younger lover learning from an older mentor of sorts.

For all his softness, Chalamet smartly and subtly portrays Elio as portrayed as an innocent and active sexual being. If the solo scene where Elio finishes in an apricot is any indication, the hyper sexuality often misattributed to bisexual men specifically is portrayed here as the overwhelming sex drive of youth. This is only further driven home by the fact that Elio is the one to initiate the affair, with Oliver pulling away from the first kiss on the pretense of "wanting to be good."

Here we have another part of growing up queer: shame. Elio's father will admit to him near the end of the film, as he smokes a cigarette with a son heartbroken over Oliver's return to America, that he envies the relationship they had. He reveals to Elio that in his youth, he almost had something similar and yet something held him back. The blessing him and Elio's mother (Amira Casar) gave to the affair, the openness of parents to a queer child, feels idyllic after years of narratives of the adversity faced by these kids at the hand of parents who refuse to understand them.

When Moonlight won the Oscar, despite the gaffe that some say overshadowed the victory, the narratives of people of color and the queer community were justified on a broad scale, a powerful moment for an Academy so often criticized for not giving attention to these stories. Queer men have always had multi-faceted narratives; when it comes to love, even more so. We didn't have films growing up to tell us how to love, we didn't have anyone to look up to besides each other, our desire the most overwhelming guide. If there's one thing Call Me By Your Name understands, it's the complexities that come with falling in love, no matter who it is that's the target of our affection. For Elio, lost in the Italian summer of youth and the throes of his desire, enduring the first loss of love and exploring what that feels like ends all too familiar whether or not one is queer: in deep thought, eyes welling up with tears.

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Timothée Chalamet by Frank Ocean