The Male Gaze and the Fragility of Identity

The Male Gaze and the Fragility of Identity

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 By Sam Fuhrer

Call Me By Your Name is an adaptation of a novel by the author Andre Acimen. The film, written by James Ivory and directed by Luca Guadagnino, delicately unwraps a summer romance between two male characters, Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalemet) and Oliver, (Armie Hammer). Elio, a 17 year old living with his parents ‘somewhere in Northern Italy’, is a music prodigy prone to books and long walks by the river. Oliver is a brash 24 year old American with blonde hair, bronze skin and an Adonis-like figure. Each year the father, an ancient archaeology professor played by Michael Stuhlbarg, invites a grad student into their home for six weeks to study alongside him. This year that student happens to be Oliver.

“He seems very confident,” Elio says to his female friend as they spy down on him when he arrives. He is un-apologetically american in his size and presence, sporting loud button downs, dark sunglasses, khaki shorts and white tennis shoes. He occupies Elio’s bedroom and doesn’t join the family for dinner on his first night in town. Elio interprets this behavior as arrogance and winds up complaining to his parents about it.

A shift happens when Oliver corrects the professor on the proper etymology of the word ‘Apricot.’ The professor boastfully proclaims the word is Arabic, like alchemy and alcohol, and Oliver obliges, claiming that the root is actually Greek, and was later adapted by the Arabic people. While the correction may have been out of place, it changes the tone of Oliver’s character and proves to the audience that he has substance, and is not just a object of desire seducing us with his male gaze.

We see Elio truly struggling to make sense of the conflicting emotions he has towards Oliver. It’s as if he wishes that Oliver was stupid, because that would allow him to ignore the complicated thoughts he has about him. Oliver’s beauty, intelligence, and confidence is so overwhelming for Elio that eventually he caves and just buries his head in Oliver’s red shorts, which are left resting on his bed.

Like all of Guadagnino’s films, there is a mysterious shift in identity at play. The purely cinematic mood elicits an erotic tranquility and a civilized intellect that is constantly being threatened by desire and nature. While the film may live in a world of heightened sophistication, the humans are still coping with the physical realities of the water being freezing, the sun beating down, the nose bleeding, the grass growing wildly, and the peach dripping sticky citrus juice over the body.

Thankfully, the setting is conducive to romance, and since they are buried deep in the European countryside, there is a certain freedom that comes with the seclusion. With constant cigarette smoking and wine drinking, the families indulgent sense of leisure begs the question of whether hedonism is high brow or profane. The summer is spent in a haze of beautiful home cooked meals by a frazzled maid, navigating through mountains of books, walks in the forests, dips in natural bodies of water and sexual encounters that tread between violence and grace.

“Is there anything you don’t know?” Oliver asks Elio after he is informed about a World War I monument.

 Well, if you only knew how little I really know about the things that matter.”

“What things matter?” Oliver asks as Elio advances toward him.

This is the first sexual exchange the two have, which again changes the dynamic of the movie. It is the start of a new tension building as Guadagnino redirects the relationship between the two. While wanting them to fulfill their desire and find happiness, it’s ultimately a difficult decision. Should Oliver have sex with Elio, even if it’s presumptuously what Elio wants, or is that a violation of power. After all, Elio is only 17, and Oliver could very well be taking advantage of him. It is Elio who pursues the initial contact, and at first Oliver attempts to restrain himself.

“We should go,” says Oliver, laying intimately next to Elio by the river. They’ve just made out for the first time and Elio’s mouth orgasmically sprung open as Oliver sensually rubbed his tongue between his lips. “We haven’t yet done anything we should be ashamed of.”

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Early in the film Oliver mistakes a soft boiled egg for a hardboiled egg, and cracks the shell too hard, causing the yoke to spatter across the table cloth. After Oliver and Elio have their first experience together, Elio is sitting at the same table with the family and his nose starts to bleed, also creating a mess on the table cloth. Has Oliver once again acted too aggressive with something too fragile? Oliver excuses himself from the table and goes to comfort Elio. “Was this my fault?” he asks, and we get the idea that Elio may have staged the incident just to get some alone time with Oliver. They are simply falling love and learning each other’s quirks.

Movies about gayness are typically that; about gayness. They are either too subtle, or they are about the shame and pity that comes with being gay. With Call Me By Your Name, Weekend, Blue Is The Warmest Color and Beach Rats, cinema has come a long way from Brokeback Mountain. These post-gay movies are about people experiencing attraction and acting on their desires. They do not dwell on ideology or the plight of a homosexual in society, they are just truthful stories about people who fall in love and have sex with each other and happen to be the same sex.

There is nothing too graphic or explicit in Call Me By Your Name, yet sex is a very prevalent part of the experience. There are naked men and women scattered throughout the movie yet no prolonged scenes of penetration. The camera even pans out to the forest during a midnight encounter, accentuating the raw nature of the engagement. Similar to what Guadagnino did with the prawn scene in I Am Love, he finds other ways to illicit sexual emotions. There are wet bathing suits left to dry in the washroom, and each one is more arousing than the next. Hanging like voluptuous Greco-Roman sculptures with lavish creases in the cloth, and intertwined laces that dangle in intricate knots, this scene is so pornographic we almost turn away.

Elio has something truly special, the opportunity to figure out who he is. He has a man and a woman both eagerly willing to accept him sexually, the luxury of time, a family that speaks openly about sex and he has the freedom to swap between the two without making a monogamous choice.

“I wish everyone was as sick as you,” says Oliver, after uncovering a sodomized peach with semen dripping down the side of it on Elio’s nightstand. Elio, horrified and embarrassed, tries to hide the mess, but Oliver does the unthinkable, and places the object in his mouth. Attraction is the most powerful force in the universe and in the heat of it there’s almost nothing that can diminish it. While this scene has become infamous for being grotesque, it could oddly be the most human interaction in modern cinema. Yes, it’s symbolic of piercing a ripened object and bathing in the sticky aftermath, but it also expands the boundaries of their interpersonal comfort levels, allowing them to know they have nothing to fear between themselves.

“Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot,” says Elio’s father in his glorious closing monologue. Monumental shifts in identity happen by taking risks and acting on desires. Once we figure out who we are it is our personal responsibility not to be ashamed of it. “You had a beautiful friendship. Maybe more than a friendship. And I envy you. In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, or pray that their sons land on their feet soon enough. But I am not such a parent.” Delivered with every bit as much grace and virtuosity as Robin Williams’s heartfelt speech to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, it’s a monologue actors dream of delivering. Where one gets to say something that every living human being wishes they heard. I saw the film in a packed theater in Century City and it was interrupted multiple times by choked up tears and sniffles by both gay and straight men in the audience.

“We wasted so many days, why didn’t you give me a sign.” Says Elio, being held in Oliver’s arms in his final days at the villa.

“I tried to” says Oliver.

That’s what love is and that’s what life is. We often times don’t act until it’s too late, assuming we have more time than we do, especially in youth, and things that should have been said remain unspoken. We fear rejection and embarrassment more than we value our own happiness. Better to speak than to die, is the message of the 16th Century poetry Elio’s parents read to him one night, and is ultimately the message of the film.


*re-published per author’s request

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