Have you ever, somewhat unexpectedly, fallen in love before? It’s electric. No art form – no matter how hard it may try – can ever truly capture how it feels. Man or woman, queer or straight, chemistry is universal and symbiotic; your orientation barely matters.
Call Me By Your Name is one of a few films that comes remarkably close to capturing that exhilarating moment. The latest film from the gay Italian director Luca Guadagnino, it tells the tale of two men – one named Elio, the 17-year-old son (Timothée Chalamet) of an Antiquities Professor, the other Oliver, the boy’s father’s 23-year-old assistant (Armie Hammer)—who become besotted by each other over a hot summer they share in Northern Italy.
They spend most of the film in a remarkable, shared, loving space, regularly sleeping with women in the town too. Over its 130 minute runtime, the boundaries of their sexuality never seems to take precedence. Perhaps that's why, despite its ‘queer themes’ its resonated with such a universal audience: this isn’t much of a gay story, but one of human connection and the way fleeting love affairs linger long after they’re over.
Films of this genre are so often labelled ‘queer’: an umbrella term applied to a niche kind of cinema that caters to an audience that rarely see their life stories represented on screen. While Call Me By Your Name may fall under that label, to limit its audience to such a specialist group feels like a crime against its glorious, universal nature. It all comes down to palatability. Suppressed in other forms of mainstream culture, cinema has always been an outlet for the more ‘gratuitous’ elements of queerness to be shown in explicit detail: sex, recreational drug use, sordid nightlifes and personal and political battles with HIV. Today, the lives of queer people are still damaged by stereotypes and scaremongering; cinema even refuses to give them a break.
This is why Call Me By Your Name’s breezy, yet realistic portrayal of a gay relationship is so important. By retracting any elements of conflict – the tropes of queer cinema – it manages to showcase an infinitely relatable, everyday love story in a frame that makes it feel miraculous and special. Arguments on its effectiveness exist on both sides, though: some believe that the film’s lyrical, subtle approach to sex, nudity and gay relationships detracts from the authenticity of what a queer awakening might feel like. Sex can be quite mechanical on screen, and Call Me By Your Name is such a fluid love story that works on a less carnal level. Guadagnino defended its subtleties, telling The Independent that the use of nudity was “absolutely irrelevant”.
It’s one of the most affecting and respected films of the 21st century. As such, a few critics are understandably upset that the film was cast with two straight actors playing gay men. In cinema, genuine queer greatness is rarely rewarded—only Ian McKellen has won an Oscar for playing an openly gay man—so it’s a bitter pill to swallow when straight, cisgender actors get the shine for playing LGBTQ characters. It’s something that Guadagnino got flack for in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. He said that “[he] couldn’t have ever thought of casting with any sort of gender agenda,” and that “[he prefers] much more never to investigate or label [his] performers in any way.”
It’s a fair point to make, and Hammer and Chalamet undoubtedly prove themselves in the film by embracing a beautiful kind of ambiguity to the confines of their characters’ sexuality and relationship. Their roles aren’t necessarily those of queer legends; the film is so intimate it could never spawn idols. Perhaps it’s more important to channel our energy to make sure the influential gay figures on screen are, rightfully so, played by the people they’ve inspired.
A perfect example of this is 120 BPM, the new film from Eastern Boys director Robin Campillo. Telling the operatic story of the French activist group Act Up! and their fight for the voices of those dying of AIDS to be heard, it’s another monumental film with gay protagonists to hit our screens this year, and all three of its leads—Nahuel Pérez Biscayart; Adele Haenel; Arnaud Valois—are queer.
But while BPM is almost about the tragedy of queer existence, Call Me By Your Name is about the ubiquitous nature of being caught off guard by lust; an awakening to a period of experimentation and blurred definitions, that doesn’t pander to the sexually-led, queer movie tropes.. You believe, fully, that these two human beings are in love—even if the men playing them aren't queer themselves.