When watching Call Me By Your Name, it’s difficult to picture anyone but the scrawny, loveable Timothée Chalamet, and overwhelmingly charismatic Armie Hammer playing the main characters. The two play the roles of Elio and Oliver respectively – two young men in love in the Italian countryside. From the get-go, their love for each other is profound; Hammer and Chalamet are fresh faces on the big screen for most, and they perform the roles with the level of nuance every queer film deserves, but sadly never received until Moonlight. However, even with such skillful actors and the undeniably romantic backdrop of 1980’s Italy, the film glosses over casual misogyny for the sake of Elio’s development, and invalidates Elio and Oliver’s relationship by never explicitly depicting their sexual encounters.
As the film starts, 17 year old Elio stares outside the window of his family’s home in Italy, with a perceptive tone of irritation from having to share his space with Oliver, a 24 year old graduate student who is visiting to conduct research with Elio’s father. Elio and Oliver first interact with playful immaturity, but this fades as Elio realizes he’s developing feelings for Oliver. But while these feelings are manifesting within, Elio is also overcome with confusion and stress over his newfound love of another man.
These feelings so confuse Elio, that in a rather selfish act, he has sex with his female friend Marzia. Elio’s had sex with girls before, and in the film, he is shown having sex with her twice. But what does this have to do with casual misogyny? It is clear Marzia feels connected to Elio, but Elio does not reciprocate such feelings. Elio’s own journey of self-discovery is the justification for this emotional manipulation of Marzia, which the audience is encouraged to excuse for the sake of Elio’s personal journey. In the grand scheme of the plot, we gloss over this without a second thought because we as the audience are rooting for Elio and Oliver, but this does not make it okay to take advantage of someone else’s feelings – even if it isn’t intentional. They come to reconcile their relationship in the end, but Elio’s prioritization of his feelings reiterate commonplace misogyny.
Beyond this, however, Elio’s sexual encounters with Marzia bring up another significant issue with this film. Throughout the film, we never once see Elio and Oliver have sex. At first glance, Elio and Marzia’s sex scenes seem to fill the plot of Elio’s self discovery. But if it’s Elio and Oliver’s journey we are made to champion throughout the film, why do we never see them having sex?
For those who have never seen the film, the emotional connection that drives Elio and Oliver’s relationship is supplemented with several sensual scenes throughout. From Oliver’s grab of Elio’s shoulder to Elio’s forthright grab of Oliver’s crotch, we are given various degrees of sensuality that are never supplemented with on-camera sexual action. The sequences in the film in which sex is the logical next step is always diverted, which is counterproductive to the telling of their narrative.
In years past, queer audience members have been forced to contend with little or no representation of queer identities in film. Now that we are seeing queer identities as a narrative focus, it is terribly limiting to never see Elio and Oliver have sex on camera. The fact that there are two scenes in which Elio has sex with a woman shows that the director of the film is not opposed to showing sex if it fits within the bounds of heteronormativity. This choice in direction sends the message that sex between men is of some perverted nature too taboo for the screen.
One of the most talked-about scenes in the film is when Elio penetrates a ripe peach with his penis under a blanket to simulate anal sex. When Oliver walks in and teases Elio with his penetrated peach, a peculiar sexual fantasy is brought to life for members of the audience. However in retrospect, this scene comes across like a decoy. In the book, this event is a pivotal moment in Elio and Oliver’s journey. It’s a moment neither of them will surely ever forget – a moment the reader will never forget either. However in the context of the film, the director manipulates the scene to distract us from the fact that they will never actually show Elio and Oliver on screen having sex.
This lack of sex on screen between men perpetuates the systematic inequalities faced by queer people in the film industry. In the 1930’s, the Hays Code was enforced to limit representation and normalization of behaviors deemed “unsavory or morally corrupt” by religious groups. While they were replaced by the MPAA ratings in the 1950’s, this strict culture has persisted because it has refused to be challenged until recent times. The minimal queer sexuality shown here echoes the volatile law of the Hays Code. The peach scene is paradigmatic of current mainstream film culture; the lack of sexual action tells queer people watching Call Me By Your Name that a fundamental aspect of their existence will never truly be accepted.
Overall, the film was well thought out and executed. While I am tempted to roll into a “the book was better!” rant, I do not want to take away from the emotionally fulfilling performances of the characters. Chalamet and Hammer are both excellent, and Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as Elio’s father deserves praise as well. What the film lacked in sexual fulfillment, it made up for in its unique portrayal of a father-son relationship in which Elio’s father helped Elio navigate his emotional turmoil. Whether society is ‘ready’ for on screen queer sex will have to be determined by future queer films. I’m happy in the very least that I can go to a film in which I see my own emotional ups-and-downs of navigating queerness, but ultimately as queer viewers, we deserve better.