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More Than a Pretty Picture: Call Me by Your Name’s Subversion of Hollywood’s Heteronormative Portrayal of Homosexuality

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“More Than a Pretty Picture” won first place in the Robert A. Boit Prize essay category of the 2019 Ilona Karmel Writing Prizes.

“More Than a Pretty Picture” won first place in the Robert A. Boit Prize essay category of the 2019 Ilona Karmel Writing Prizes.

When the glamorous red carpets and gilded ballrooms of Hollywood emptied for the last time at the end of the 2018 motion picture awards season, Luca Gaudagnino’s intoxicatingly sensuous and enchantingly visceral gay romance Call Me by Your Name walked away with eighty-seven awards, including an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. The industry-wide recognition and praise for a movie with homosexual protagonists perhaps isn’t a novelty in an era post Brokeback Mountain (2005) where queer cinema has garnered both wider audiences and greater industry acknowledgement. However, Call Me by Your Name’s greatest triumph lies with its unabashed portrayal of homosexuality without attempting to conform to heteronormative values like so many other large-scale queer studio releases tend to. Tethering together cinematic allure and a powerful narrative, the film faithfully follows the blossoming love affair between seventeen-year-old Italian-American Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) and twenty-four-year-old American exchange student Oliver (Armie Hammer). In the lethargic heat of the blissfully antiquated Italian region of Lombardy during the summer of 1983, Oliver and Elio engage in an unapologetic romance filled with unhurried, tactile sensuality and vibrant bursts of passion. Directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by James Ivory, both of whom are both openly gay men, the film captures a non-polemical and unflinching view of homoeroticism and is one of the first to fully bring an unabated portrayal of gay desire to mainstream film.

Although the presence of homo-centric plotlines persist with relative frequency throughout the film industry, the representations of the LGBTQ community tend to inaccurately reflect reality in order to better conform to heteronormative values (Seif, 12). According to University of Utah Professor Helene Shugart within her study Reinventing Privilege: The New (Gay) Man in Contemporary Popular Media, the portrayal of queer subject matter within film tends to fall into three defining characteristics: gendered stereotypes, victimization, and lack of sexual depiction.

The frequent use of gendered stereotypes for gay and lesbian characters often portrays gay men as effeminate and lesbians as masculine. Known as “gender inversion”, such gendered stereotypes fall outside the traditional system of binary gender identity where one is male or female according to biological sex (Battles, 90). This existence outside the societally accepted boundaries of binary gender creates a sense “other” as they are different than what is perceived as normal. By having homosexuals very visually encompassing an “other” status, heteronormative audiences can disassociate and more easily watch homosexual content without feeling as if their heterosexual beliefs are directly confronted. Additionally, gendered stereotypes can be used as a foil. As Professor Helene Shugart notes, “highly flamboyant, outrageously stereotypical gay male characters function as foils against which the leading men emerge as more traditionally masculine and, thus, more consistent with mainstream tropes of heterosexuality (Shugart, 72)”. The gendered stereotyping of gay characters ultimately enables a more heteronormative sensibility as masculinity becomes further equated with male heterosexuality. Therefore, the flamboyant film protagonist renormalizes heterosexual conventions (Shugart, 68).

Although contingent upon the subject matter and specificity of the plot, many homosexual protagonists within mainstream film are portrayed as the victim. The victim role can manifest itself in numerous way, yet heterosexuals tend to be depicted as “happy” and living with relatively few challenges, while their gay counterparts are “unhappy” and suffering from external pressures or internal vices (i.e. AIDS, hate crimes, suicide, drug-abuse) (Seif, 12). While this dualistic imagery may bring light to the undeniably real challenges which members of the LGBTQ community face, its pervasiveness also serves to validate the perception of heterosexuality as the “right” sexual identity. By juxtaposing a happy heterosexual life with a suffering homosexual life, the message becomes evident that heterosexuality is the ideal and desired identity.

Despite gendered stereotypes and victimization, perhaps the most glaringly inaccurate and hetero-centric depiction of homosexuality within film is the intentional exclusion of same-sex sex scenes. As University of Melbourne queer cinema professor Stuart Richards notes, “Sex sells, except when it comes to [Hollywood] films with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) content (Richards, 19)”. Sex between heterosexual couples often appears with intentional emphasis, yet sex between homosexual couples is hardly shown (Richards, 20). Explicit homosexual sexual content is an extremely direct and tangibly visible violation of heteronormative standards. By removing the sexuality of LGBTQ characters, the film can still contain homosexual content but also garner mainstream support by conforming to heteronormative values.

Through this mire of heteronormative mainstream queer cinema, Call Me by Your Name breaks through with a refreshingly unabated portrayal of homosexual love. A typifying example of the film’s refusal to mold its homosexual content to heterosexual values occurs in scene 55 as Oliver and Elio lounge poolside one shiftless afternoon a few weeks into the summer. The opening frames of the scene reveal a close-up overhead shot of a man’s bare foot idly swirling in greenish hued water. The minute ripples extend across the frame while the diegetic sounds of nature— birds chirping, a fountain gurgling, wind rustling the apricot tree leaves—saturate the sonic background. The camera lingers on this shot, as if it itself is captivated by the subtle serenity of the scene; the viewer begins to fall into a spellbinding enchantment of the soothing aura. Time seems to momentarily stand-still. Suddenly, without a change in the camera angle or visual composition, the trance is broken as Elio’s even-toned, stoic voice intrudes from somewhere outside the frame:

ELIO: My mom’s been reading this German romance. She read some of it to my Father and I the day the lights went out.

Elio’s mention of the German romance novel instantly draws the viewer to recall the previous scene where a short snippet of the story is told. From what is revealed, the story revolves around a knight and a princess deeply in love but unable to express their emotions towards each other. With this prior knowledge, the audience can quickly deduce the suggestion of a metaphor building between the German romance and the love between Elio and Oliver. However, at this moment, Guadagnino intentionally leaves the outcome of both the fictional and real romances undetermined.

A direct cut to an eye-level shot of Oliver sitting on the edge of the pool with one of his bare legs dipped in the water and his back facing the camera reveals the owner of the previously seen foot. Perfectly obeying the rule of thirds, Oliver sits off-center while the rambling, sun-washed shrubs and bushes of the Perlman’s garden envelope the rest of the frame. The camera again lingers, and the audience is forced to observe the minute details of Oliver’s body: his short golden hair, broad muscular shoulders, tanned and strong arms and thighs, his khaki shorts and short-sleeve button-down shirt. He appears to embody the classic All-American male look. By setting Oliver’s background to relatively nondescript sun-washed shrubbery, Guadagnino instantly draws the viewer’s attention to the figure of Oliver and creates an implicit understanding that his physical form is something to be observed. Although reinforced many times throughout the film via unusually long gazing shots directed as observing the defining characteristics of Elio and Oliver, the viewer sees Oliver as a traditional and idealized form of masculinity rather than the typically portrayed queer gendered stereotype. Elio and Oliver fail to exist as a mere foil to a traditionally masculine heterosexual male.

The conformation to the heteronormative idea of binary gender may glancingly appear to reinforce heterosexual values; however, it subtly subverts such standards as the audience is prompted to recognize that homosexuality isn’t something that can be “othered” or marked off as an exception. Oliver’s very blatant embodiment of society’s traditional concept of “masculinity” illustrates that homosexuality and heterosexuality may differ on sexual preference but does not necessarily have to differ along gender performances. Gay men can be masculine and lesbian women can feminine. It challenges the notion that one can determine one’s sexuality by visible indications and disrupts the tradition of portraying queer characters in cinema through gendered stereotypes.

Additionally, Guadagnino’s emphasis on directing the viewer’s attention to the physicality of Oliver and his conventionally sexually attractive form elevates the scene’s homoeroticism. Oliver’s tanned and muscular body radiates sex appeal to both homosexual and heterosexual audiences. The viewer’s perception of Oliver becomes entwined with his blatant sexual attractiveness. Rather than following mainstream cinematic tradition of stripping queer characters of their sexuality, Guadagnino embraces it. This break from convention is further explored later in the scene.

As the viewer continues to gaze upon the masculinity of Oliver, Oliver responds to Elio’s initial comments on the German romance novel.

OLIVER: About the knight who doesn’t know whether to speak or die?

ELIO: Yes.

OLIVER: Well, does he or doesn’t he?

Through the veiled dialogue, the audience quickly solidifies the initial deduction that the discussion of whether one should admit his love or die without speaking is metaphoric for the blossoming love affair between Elio and Oliver. Prior to this scene, fleeting instances of mutual affection between the two young men occur, such as a subtle look across the breakfast table or a casual shoulder rub after a volleyball game. Yet, none have culminated in such a direct confrontation. The German romance metaphor which Elio refers to appears to set up the initial victimization narrative embodied by queer characters within mainstream film. External factors, environmental pressures, or internal vices prevent queer protagonists from “speaking” and living in the open and “out” way that they wish to. More explicitly, they struggle with declaring their homosexuality publicly and ultimately “die” without ever “speaking”.

Just before the shot seems to wander into idyllic monotony, a direct cut to a reverse over-the-shoulder shot with rack focus reveals Oliver in the foreground of the frame from above the shoulders; his face is blurry and out-of-focus, but facing the camera. Framed in the space above Oliver’s shoulders and to the side of his head is Elio, sitting shirtless in a lounge chair with a book in hand. Elio, though in the background, remains in-focus, calling attention to the importance of both his visual composition and the subsequent words he speaks.

ELIO: Better to speak, she said. But she’s on her guard. She senses a trap somewhere.

OLIVER: So does he speak?

ELIO: No, he fudges.

First tackling the visual composition of the shot, the shirtless in-focus figure of Elio draws distinct attention to his male physique, similar to the way in which the audience was led to observe the masculinity of Oliver. Though less tan and muscular than Oliver (perhaps just a result of his younger age), Elio still appears to be the idealized version of an adolescent young man. His short dark brown hair, bare chest, white converse sneakers, and dark blue shorts all exude the typical markers of a heterosexual male binary gender identity. Once more, the idea of queer gendered stereotypes is subverted as Elio fails to embody an effeminate gay young man.

Regarding the dialogue of the shot, Elio’s omission that the knight does not speak seems to perpetuate the notion of the gay victim stereotype. Rather than speaking which would free him from the burden of his hidden love, the knight—symbolic of the relationship between Oliver and Elio— “fudges” and chooses to die without ever living an open life. The dialogue calls into question why the knight ultimately fudges, and the answer may be found in the reaction of the princess. The mention of a “trap” evokes the idea of society’s unacceptance, pervasive discrimination, and other barriers through which homosexuals must navigate and attempt to overcome to live an “out” life. Being “out” and “speaking” does not necessarily mean a life full of acceptance and ultimate happiness. Though queer gender stereotypes may have been overthrown within Call Me by Your Name, victimization is yet to be actively subverted.

However, as Elio finishes his thoughts, a rack focus takes effect, and Oliver instantly becomes in-focus and the center of the viewers’ attention. Implicitly, the rack focus signals the magnitude of Elio’s words in changing the dynamic of the relationship. Fixed on Oliver’s face, the viewer perceives his conflicted and contemplative expression in response to Elio, providing a brief glimpse into the hidden internal emotions of the character. The idea of never openly admitting his homosexual love for Elio seems to weigh heavily on his mind. Finally, Oliver responds.

OLIVER: That figures. He’s French. Listen, I need to pick up something in town.

ELIO: I’ll go, if you want me to.

OLIVER: Let’s go together.

Through these few seconds of rapid back-and-forth dialogue, the entire queer victimization trope is overthrown. By humorously disregarding the knight’s actions by making a joke at the expense of French culture, Oliver signals his disapproval of the story’s ending and his unwillingness to follow in the knight’s footsteps. He would rather “speak” than hide both his love for Elio and his homosexual identity. Ultimately, Oliver refuses be a victim of society. This notion is further solidified by his proposal to Elio that they go into town together. While this suggestion may seem purely mundane, its significance lies with the fact that it directly follows the story of whether to admit ones love or not. An offer to go into town together, notably a public place where society can view their relationship, reads as an in-direct omission of love. Elio’s willingness to go, contingent upon Oliver’s desire to have him accompany him, equally demonstrates Elio’s refusal of victimization. Though there lacks an overt proclamation by Elio or Oliver, the scene conveys the subversion of victimization without seeming unrealistic. Rarely in real-life romance does one have such a blatant conversation about each other’s fledging feelings. The result of both men’s decision to “speak” will later be seen as the trip into town concludes with a first kiss between Elio and Oliver. Ivory and Guadagnino masterfully morph the the classic reinstatement of queer victimization into an example of liberation and fearless expression.

Following the revealing dialogue sequence, the shot shifts to the same eye-level camera angle previously used to observe Oliver sitting at the edge of the pool with his back turned, only this time Oliver faces the camera and Elio. Oliver’s eyes gaze at Elio as he dips both of his feet into the water. Midafternoon sunlight bathes the surrounding garden greenery and Oliver’s face in a pearly aura. The camera loiters on this visual composition, drawing out time and evoking the image of Oliver as an ethereal object of desire—perhaps the same way in which Elio views him. Not only does the audience again notice the conspicuous manifestation of masculinity, but also the homoerotic nuances of the composition. From Elio’s perspective, the camera captures a scandalous amount of male thigh as Oliver’s shorts ride up in his seated position. The warm sunlight highlights Oliver’s defined jawline, and creates shadows that emphasize his strong, capable arms. Blissful sounds of the garden like birds chirping and water gurgling serve as meditative sonic background. The explicitly sensual nature of the shot displays homoeroticism as experienced by Elio at this current moment; the audience sees Elio’s physical desires as part of his homosexual love for Oliver.

The atmosphere of homoeroticism is furthered as Oliver hastily jumps up from his poolside perch to walk toward Elio, and the camera captures it in a low-angle tracking shot. Although it is distinctly not a point-of-view shot as Oliver’s eye remain trained on Elio, the audience again experiences the way Elio would be seeing Oliver from his lower position on the lounge chair. The low-angle captures only Oliver above the chest with his head set against a cloudless yellow-tainted blue sky; barely any of the notable garden greenery is in the frame. From this perspective Oliver once more exudes an ether of sensuality as the audience watches his perfectly chiseled masculine face cross the frame. Guadagnino’s decision to set Oliver’s face against an empty sky forces the viewer to look at Oliver and intake the sexual appeal he presents to Elio. Unlike traditional portrayals of homosexuality within mainstream queer cinema, Guadagnino does not temper the depiction of the sexual tension and homoeroticism between the two young men.

While the scene ends seconds later without any more explicit homoerotic content as Elio and Oliver leave to go into town together, Call Me by Your Name laudably incorporates other emotionally compelling and brazenly visual homosexual sex scenes between Oliver and Elio, one of such being scene 105. The scene begins at midnight in Oliver’s room, only a few minutes after Mr. and Mrs. Perlman conclude a small dinner party hosted for two family friends. The camera appears to be positioned in the corner of the Oliver’s room, capturing a medium shot of Oliver and Elio leaning side-by-side against the foot of the bedpost. Darkness envelops most of the frame besides the figures of the two young men who are facing the camera, slightly illuminated by moonlight. No words are spoken, and the only sounds come from the rustling of leaves from trees somewhere outside the frame. The absence of dialogue or motion draws out time and seconds seems to slowly creep by. Aware of their previous admissions of desire for each other and brief actions of physical sexual contact like fleeting kisses, the audience can palpably feel the sexual tension build as Elio and Oliver stand in silence next to each other.

Finally breaking the silence, Oliver whispers:

OLIVER: Can I kiss you?

ELIO: Yes, please.

With this initial suggestion, the sexual reservations of Elio and Oliver evaporate. Elio passionately rubs up against Oliver as Oliver’s muscular arms grip Elio and move up and down his body. The camera remains steady in its positioning in the corner, un-intrusive to the unfolding sexuality of the scene. It invites the audience to watch as an observant spectator, not as a participant. Oliver pulls Elio’s head close to his and sensually kisses his neck, forehead, and ultimately lips. The viewer hears the heavy breathing of both men as they exhale and inhale with heightened desire. Eroticism seems to seep from the screen—by no means has this sequence been tempered for the sake of a heterosexual audience.

Yet, Guadagnino does not stop merely at the implication of sexual desire, he decisively shows it. The camera follows Elio and Oliver as they make their way around to the bed as near silence envelops the sonic background once more. Captured in a medium side-shot, Elio straddles Oliver as they passionately lock lips; the noise of their rubbing clothes and deep breathing saturate the audio. The medium shot enables the audience to view the entirety of the scene, watching all the action unfold without ambiguity. The viewer can see the whole scene in detail; this is in contrast to traditional depictions of sex scenes where close-up shots shield the audience from explicit content.

As the sexual tension builds, Oliver pulls off Elio’s shirt and Elio rips off Oliver’s. Their glistening masculine figures shine in the moonlight. The audience is made to watch their bare limbs tangle with each other as they intensely kiss, and the viewer is engulfed with the sights and sounds of sexual passion. The camera remains in its medium shot position, enabling the entirety of the scene to be explicitly depicted. Oliver and Elio proceed to remove their shorts and undergarments with feverous charged desire. Oliver, who is now in the position of straddling Elio, lays down naked on top of Elio, bare buttock exposed to the camera. There are no sheets to cover modesty, or distractions to divert the audience’s attention; moonlight directly guides the viewer’s gaze to the men’s bare illuminated bodies. The audience begins to see the actual act of sex occur, an extremely rare occurrence within mainstream queer cinema. Rather than stripping both Elio and Oliver of their sexuality or inferring a sex scene through non-graphic visuals, Call Me by Your Name brazenly displays homoeroticism in all its physical sexual splendor. Homosexual sex is treated no differently than heterosexual sex.

However, before the full act of sexual penetration occurs, the camera pans to the room’s open window where it settles on observing the tree from which the previously heard rustling noises originate. While observing the tree in the moonlight, the audience hears the rhythmic thudding of Oliver’s thrusts and quickened breaths that culminate in erotic orgasmic ecstasy. Although the viewer may not graphically see the physical act of complete intercourse, the audience can very evidently hear it. While the illustrative scene does admittedly exclude a detailed and graphic visual depiction of the mechanical aspects of Elio and Oliver’s sex, it very clearly stands as one of the most openly sexual representations of homoeroticism within mainstream queer film. The audience is directly presented with most of the sexual visuals and all of the audio; through this relative explicitness, the film doesn’t appear to be attempting to cover up or temper the homosexual content. For Guadagnino, excluding the entirety of the sex from start to finish aligned with his sense of “a more dignified and sophisticated sense of voyeurism than a need to stare at other people’ sexes (Lodge).” Important to note, many heterosexual sex scenes also tactfully cut away before the viewer witness the mechanical act of intercourse. Therefore, the decision of even including a comparable homosexual sex scene appears to subvert the common prevalence of molding homosexuality to heteronormativity.

Yet, many critics including the film’s screenwriter James Ivory note that it does not go far enough to subvert the prevalent tendency to moderate homosexual content in order to appeal to heterosexual audiences. As James Ivory criticizes, “he [Guadagnino] sat in this very room where I am sitting now, talking about how he would do it, so when he says that it was a conscious aesthetic decision not to—well, that’s just bullshit (Tracer).” Though the criticism may hold some merit, there is a blurry line between not revealing enough and overdoing the sexual content to the point where it becomes pornographic. The sex between Elio and Oliver isn’t intended to be a stark and graphic representation of homosexual sex, but rather a tasteful view into their beautiful and emotional love making.

Luca Guadagnino’s masterpiece Call Me by Your Name demonstrates tremendous strides in redefining mainstream queer cinema. While no film can be perfect, it boldly refuses to conform to the industry-wide tradition of queer gendered stereotypes, victimization, and lack of sexual depiction. The worldwide success of the Call Me by Your Name is perhaps testament to the fact that cinema is ready for a new and more authentic era of homo-centric film.

Works Cited

Battles, Kathleen, and Wendy Hilton-Morrow. “Gay Characters in Conventional Spaces: Will and Grace and the Situation Comedy Genre.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 19, no. 1, 9. Nov. 2002, pp. 87–105., doi:10.1080/07393180216553.

Lodge, Guy. “Why Is Oscar-Buzzed Romance Call Me by Your Name so Coy About Gay Sex?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 23 Nov. 2017, www.theguardian.com/film/2017/nov/23/call-me-by-your-name-gay-sex-oscars.

Richards, Stuart. “Overcoming the Stigma: The Queer Denial of Indiewood.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 68, no. 1, Jan. 2016, p. 19., doi:10.5406/jfilmvideo.68.1.0019.

Seif, Ray. “The Media Representation of Fictional Gay and Lesbian Characters on Television.” Jonkoping University, School of Education and Communication, 2017, pp. 5–18.

Shugart, Helene A. “Reinventing Privilege: The New (Gay) Man in Contemporary Popular Media.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 20, no. 1, 15 Oct. 2010, pp. 67–91., doi:10.1080/0739318032000067056.

Tracer, Dan. “The Explicit Sex Scenes That Were Almost in ‘Call Me By Your Name’.” Queerty*, Queerty, 28 Mar. 2018, www.queerty.com/explicit-sex-scenes-almost-call-name-20180328.

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Gabriella Zak
Avatar Written by Gabriella Zak