In 1981, prolific LGBT activist and film historian Vito Russo published ‘The Celluloid Closet’, a seminal work of academic literature exploring the cinematic depiction of queer people, predominantly gay men, throughout the history of Hollywood film. Early on in this expansive text, he concludes that there are two types of gays when it comes to the silver screen: the ‘wilting pansy’ – the stereotypically effeminate man, considered a moral threat to the fabric of society; and the ‘dying queer’ – the tragic, sympathetic, queer whom has succumb to his immoral lifestyle and died.
Of course, Russo was identifying these tropes as they existed in wider Hollywood film prior to 1981. The fascinating blotch upon queer film into the postmodern era, however, is that these tropes, particularly the dying queer, have consistently remained: and while today’s generation will not see femininity in men as a negative, the ‘dying queer’ doesn't exactly establish great prospects for a gay audience.
Into the twenty first century, films championed as progressive – Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, Norman Rene’s Longtime Companion, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, etcetera – have consistently used the dying queer as a central narrative device, either to affirm tension, or as the peak of a dramatic crescendo. I concede that, for those films about AIDS, the urgency of the epidemic warranted such a grotesque depiction as a call to public sympathy, and that the use of death to solicit emotion (Brokeback’s wardrobe epilogue is a gorgeously melancholic conclusion to Twist and Del Mar’s romance arc) extends to outside of the queer canon; but my god, aren’t we due a fairy tale?
Thank the lord: such a fairy tale has been delivered. Along has come a tall, middle aged, endearingly haggard Italian man with a penchant for filmmaking – or rather “the language of cinema”, as he lovingly evoked in a post screening Q&A session at the BFI London Film Festival in 2017 – with his magnum opus in tow: Luca Guadagnino and his gloriously idyllic Call Me by Your Name. There are no dying gays; there are no attempts to demean through antiquated, feminine stereotypes; and, despite being set in the early eighties, there are no antagonistic traditionalists whom would spite homosexuality for the sake of difference. There are simply two men who fall in love against the utopic backdrop of rural Lombardy. It’s gorgeous.
Call Me by Your Name follows the initial courting and eventual romance between Elio, a seventeen-year-old culturato portrayed gorgeously by Timothée Chalomet, and Oliver, an academic in his early twenties, performed by Armie Hammer. The film is set in the early eighties, a period during which traditionalist values – pioneered by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority – ran rife throughout the United States, embellished only by a growing societal stigma towards victims of the AIDS epidemic. Yet, Guadagnino chooses not a backdrop of social conservatism, as we might expect of this tragic era: instead, the Riviera becomes a utopia for gay romance.
Similar to Ang Lee’s vision of the pastoral Wyoming in the aforementioned Brokeback, the Italian countryside represents an intimate, private space of voluptuous beauty, one which allows this burgeoning queer love to blossom at its fullest. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom shoots the landscape with an enviable finesse, using a diverse colour palette of enriched greens and blues. He sparsely uses close ups, choosing to stay wide, which really underpins the importance of the landscape and setting. This extends to their loneliest, most intimate moments – their bike rides, their mountain hike, their drunken exploration of Rome – so when the frame does come within reaching distance, it serves to further enhance their sensuality.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Guadagnino doesn’t quite allow Call Me by Your Name to fully escape the shackles of reality: there is indeed an antagonist to their romance, but it is simply the finiteness of time. As the film’s runtime ticks along, so do the days and nights the men have left together, of which both audience and subject become increasingly aware. Eventually, as if with all good things, their fling comes to an end, broken off at a train station in Rome. It’s a sombre, melancholic parting – similar, perhaps in homage, to the closing scene of Rain Man – with few words and a regretful embrace. But, ultimately, nobody dies; Oliver is not lynched for sleeping with the son of the academics with which he is lodging; Elio is not shipped off for conversion therapy.
This is what Guadagnino delivers for the queer coming of age that so many filmmakers before have looked over: an idyll that ends not in tragedy, not in death, and not in punishment, but with a measure of hope. As Elio stares through the fireplace into us throughout the closing minutes, we feel his burning passion and desire at its brightest – he’s heartbroken, but the flame has not been extinguished. Ultimately, despite his tears, he’ll be fine. And so will we.