What would it feel like to see a carefree gay boy on the big screen? American cinema about gay men has generally fallen into several fairly hardened categories: personal struggle (Moonlight and Brokeback Mountain), the devastation of the AIDS crisis (Philadelphia, Angels in America), the battle for rights (The Normal Heart and Milk, which ends with real-life pioneer Harvey Milk’s assassination), over-the-top extravaganza (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, the filmography of John Waters). This is not to say that all these movies aren’t great or don’t express real pathos about what it means to be gay in the world — they are and they do. But what would it look like if a gay movie was, well, just kind of regular?
We inch closer to a portrayal of unencumbered gayness in the upcoming film Call Me by Your Name, directed by Luca Guadagnino and based on a 2007 novel by André Aciman. Even with its plainspoken and gentle portrait of gay love, the movie has already garnered the kind of buzz generally reserved for more serious or more campy films, emerging as the breakout success at Sundance, and attracting early Oscar buzz. The story revolves around a young man of seventeen, Elio Perlman, played with masterful poise by the relative newcomer Timothée Chalamet, and the will-they-won’t-they of his infatuation with Armie Hammer’s Oliver, who is staying at Elio’s family’s Italian villa as a research assistant for the Perlman father, a professor. When Elio is at last ready to profess his desire for Oliver, he does so forcefully, and without shame or embarrassment when Oliver, at first, rebuffs him. It’s not that there isn’t tension in the movie — indeed, the sexual anxiety between the two young men, who sleep one room away from each other connected by a creaky hallway, is jittery in the best way — but it evokes the type of butterflies that every kind of kid, with every kind of sexuality, has when they meet that first person who makes their heart beat faster. “Oliver and Elio are really free creatures,” says Guadagnino. “I hope that this movie defies the idea that in order to be expressing your own identity you have to fit into a mold.”
Of course, Elio isn’t just any boy anywhere: He is a privileged one, surrounded by bourgeois comforts and loving parents, an atmosphere that allows him a safe space for finding himself that, say, Moonlight’s Chiron never has access to in his struggle for self-realization. It is 1983, too, the year that AIDS first appeared in a headline on the front page of the New York Times, but before it ravaged entire cities and changed the way we think about sex lives. Over the past two decades, Guadagnino, 46, has won praise for the sheer beauty of his movies, like I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, which are filled with wealthy characters in gorgeous Italian settings. Call Me by Your Name takes place in its own isolated fantasia, a fabulous Italian utopia filled with peach trees, red wine, and fish so big that it takes two hands to carry them into the kitchen. “We wanted it to be perfect,” Guadagnino says. The big old house that the film was shot in is in Crema, three miles from Guadagnino’s own home, which he shares with his partner of ten years, Ferdinando. (“My relationship is renewing itself every day. Every day is like a new day and the first day. And I’m not saying that to be, like, cheesy but it’s true,” he says lovingly of his partner.) He had originally wanted to purchase the house for himself, but couldn’t quite afford it, so instead, still moved by its beauty, he gave it a life onscreen.
But Chalamet is the revelation. The skinny 21-year-old born-and-raised New Yorker is a subtle if eye-catching presence in his previous work, including as the young son of Matthew McConaughey’s character in 2015’s Interstellar. Here, he is the heart and soul. “We had a lunch together a few years ago and this young man was so vivid that I was immediately attracted by him,” says Guadagnino. “Young people have a capacity of wonderment that I am really drawn to. I like wonderment. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Can he act or not?’ I was more thinking, ‘This is the embodiment of Elio.’ ” Act he can, though: So poignantly does he play the anticipation of first love that often he doesn’t even need words; his shyness about Oliver sometimes keeps him from speaking his mind, but every muscle, eye twitch, frustrated collapse into bed, and sigh expresses perfectly what it’s like to love someone and, for so many reasons, not yet know what to do about it. Elio and Oliver are bonded by being Jewish in a place where the religion is practically nonexistent, and even the way Elio plays with his Star of David necklace, worn to match Oliver’s, is evocative. “It’s about letting the characters be without hinging on performance of the lines,” Guadagnino says. “Once you make the screen breathe with life, you can get to the place in which tension grows.”
There are sex scenes in the movie, too, and in this way, perhaps Call Me by Your Name’s closest analogue is a movie not about gay men, but about gay women: 2013’s French film Blue Is the Warmest Color. But the emphasis is not on lovemaking as much as it is on the flirtatious dance between Oliver and Elio that goes on before and after the hookup. “I wasn’t trying to display erotic acts for the sake of it,” Guadagnino says. The climax doesn’t involve sex at all, but a father-to-son conversation about love and pain that serves as something of the thesis for the movie. After Elio’s Italian mother, Annella (played by a sage Amira Casar), and American father, Mr. Perlman (played by a sweet Michael Stuhlbarg), realize what is going on between their son and Oliver, Mr. Perlman deals with it in a way so poetic and generous and empathetic that it almost feels unreal, particularly if you are a gay man who did not slide so comfortably out of the closet. “I never really came out. I was lucky enough to be who I wanted to be without any hiding ever. [But] maybe people can adopt Elio’s dad as their own if they go through a difficult time with their fathers,” Guadagnino says. The scene is completely counterintuitive to how we expect to see fathers deal with their sons, and though it’s sad to admit in 2017, it still feels almost shocking to see its warmth and tenderness. “It’s about compassion, trust, wisdom.”
Guadagnino is aware of the hard work that earlier films put in to prime theatergoers for the intimacy of Call Me by Your Name. “Audiences were ready for something as sophisticated as the great Moonlight,” he says of the Barry Jenkins–directed movie that won last year’s Best Picture award for its gutting portrayal of a black gay upbringing in Miami, “so I think that a great work of art arrives when it needs to arrive.” And now is the time for Call Me by Your Name, a complicated-but-not-too-complicated ode to the joy of gay love. “I think it’s about not judging the other. That’s something that is interesting to me,” he says. “Not that I don’t think there aren’t unspeakable acts of intolerance all over the world, but I think we really need expressions of tenderness. Maybe this is a powerful political statement. So many walls have been built, but this movie is my way to build bridges.”
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