Call Me by Your Straight Male Privilege: My Problem With the Year's Hottest Gay Film
Call Me By Your Name promises to be a sensual gay love story. It is about a young man named Elio (played by Timothée Chalamet), who is spending the summer with his parents at their villa in the Italian countryside. A strapping blonde graduate student named Oliver (played by Armie Hammer) comes to live with them for the summer to study ancient sculpture with Elio's professor father. And amid the summer's blue skies, midnight swims, and apricot trees, a romance unfolds between the two men. But what should be a tender romance between the two characters ultimately falls flat because of a big casting mistake.
I don't have a problem with straight actors playing gay roles. It often works out really well: Mark Ruffalo gave a sensational performance as Ned Weeks in the film The Normal Heart, where he not only came off believably as a gay man, but also seemed to have a deep sexual attraction for his lover, Felix. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were both terrific in Brokeback Mountain. Their chemistry, body language, and energy painted an authentic portrayal of gay male love, which moved the audience in a real way.
But Call Me By Your Name does not create this same illusion. While the straight lead actors do hit their marks, kissing, holding hands, and cuddling on cue, the gestures ring hollow. You never really believe that these two characters are in love with one another; they instead seem like really good friends who are having a fun time. They smile at one another during a foot rubbing session and kiss passionately, but the exchanges lack fiery, visceral passion. This criticism may seem vague, but what I am talking about is the energy that exists between two people; it can only be seen to be believed. The only semi-concrete example I have of what I am talking about lies in Elio's relations with women. In the movie, Elio also has an affair with a girl in the village. His scenes with the girl have all the fire and steam that his scenes with Oliver lack: he is all over her, and embraces the girl with gusto. Given that the story is about two gay men, you get the feeling that Elio's behavior should be reversed.
That said though, I don't think this problem is really Chalamet's fault. He is fantastic as the young, sensitive Elio, bringing a youthful energy and deep vulnerability to the role. Chalamet builds no emotional walls between him and his audience; he shows the torment, and longing he feels for Oliver with his warm, expressive eyes. Chalamet is in the vast majority of the film, and it is a testament to his talent that we are interested in watching him for so long. He also brings a confident sexuality to the role: his alluring green eyes, lithe body, and cocky attitude fit the role nicely, even though he often reads as heterosexual. The paintings of Caravaggio come to mind, as he languorously lies naked in bed, bathing in the Italian sunlight.
The real problem lies with Armie Hammer. As Oliver, he is woefully miscast. He seems uncomfortable with playing a romantic lead to another man. As he gazes at Elio, one sees no look of longing, or burning desire from his face. When he touches Elio, it feels rote. Hammer's character is also supposed to be awkward and deeply ashamed of his gayness, and one doesn't feel this type of anxiety while watching him. Also, Hammer's character is supposed to be Jewish, and Hammer looks nothing of the sort: he is a blonde haired, blue-eyed WASP in the model of a Robert Redford, or William Holden. The director made a huge mistake casting him: Hammer seems to have wandered into this film from an entirely different one.
And this misjudgment in casting brings me to a larger injustice in Hollywood. For as long as Hollywood has been around, gay male actors have been excluded from playing romantic lead roles. Audiences and casting directors alike have said that gay actors aren't "believable" in romantic leads, and don't "read" as straight. And they have a point: oftentimes this is the truth, and I'm okay with that. But by the same token, it is not right to cast a straight male actor who does not read as gay at all. It not only hurts the storytelling, but it is also glaringly obvious to gay members of the audience. To have a straight actor deliver an unrealistic performance of a gay character reveals a double standard in Hollywood: out gay actors are rarely given a chance to play romantic leads due to a lack of "believability," but straight actors are allowed to turn in mediocre performances of gay characters. I hope this double standard disappears in the years to come, and that filmmakers and casting directors are more sensitive when casting future projects about gay men.
But in spite of this one major casting problem, Call Me By Your Name has many strong points. The cinematography is gorgeous. On screen, the Italian landscape is rendered in full, saturated color with brilliant blue skies, lush green grass, and creamy terra cotta buildings. The people, and landscape are bathed in golden Italian light, and the images transport you to the dog days of summer. The direction is also excellent. Luca Guadagnino gives the film a slow, sensual pace, which captures the leisurely lifestyle of the Italian people. This slow pace also gives room for the romance to blossom between the two main characters, and allows their passion to cook at a deliciously slow burn. This unhurried pace was a welcomed treat, as most American films are vexed by fast-paced editing, and speedy car chases. But in Call Me By Your Name, Guagagnino shows us that good movie making is more about the journey than the destination, as he immerses us in his lush, atmospheric world.
Guadagnino also captures beautifully subtle moments in the film. He films many close ups of Elio gazing longingly at Oliver from his window, and many looks of compassion, flirtation, and desire from the supporting characters. These looks last milliseconds, but bring rich detail and a dear human quality to the film. Guadagnino also does a great job of showing the two main characters' emotional distance. When Oliver and Elio have scenes together, they are often blocked far apart, creating a powerful tension between the two characters. The audience can feel their deep need to be close, and the opposing fear of their secret being discovered. Guadagnino also has Elio, in several emotional scenes, face away from the camera. This pose is a powerful device that provides mystery, and depth to Elio's emotional struggle.
The only gripe I have with Guadagnino's direction was the gay sex scenes. While the sex scenes between men and women are charged and explicit, the gay sex scenes are rather coy; we only see a brief embrace, and some kissing. The rest of the gay sex is implied, or happens off-screen. I have to wonder why Guadagnino made the gay sex scenes so modest, and the straight ones so wild. Since the story is about gay men, I feel that it should have been the reverse.
For the most part, James Ivory's script was very solid. It is a simple, bare-bones screenplay, which allows the Italian landscape, and the sensuality of the story to fill out the rest of the film's body. Not much happens in the story, but that is in keeping with the film's emphasis on the beauty of the moment rather than the destination. One notable scene occurs when Elio's father (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) tenderly comforts Elio, who is distraught about the end of his romance with Oliver. Stuhlbarg gives a touching speech about the importance of letting your heart feel pain in order to keep yourself sensitive. And how you only have your body and your heart temporarily, so you should feel as deeply you can. It is a lovely message, which Stuhlbarg delivers with warmth, and gentleness. The script does make some mistakes, however. The first lines of the script are in French. Although the family's polyglot nature is explained later, it is a little jarring to first hear French spoken in an Italian setting. I also thought that because of the romantic nature of the story and landscape, there could have been more lyricism in the script. But all in all, Ivory's screenplay served its purpose, and allowed the other elements of the story to shine.
Call Me By Your Name is like a Da Vinci painting with a hole in the middle. It is a gorgeously made film, but you cannot help but see the lack of romantic chemistry between Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet. And although I would have preferred the casting of gay actors in the lead roles, I think Chalamet would have done a fine job with an Oliver who could have more convincingly played a gay man. I can only imagine how much better the film could have been with actors that added tension, and passion to the simple script. Hopefully, this film will be a lesson to filmmakers to be more sensitive when casting gay roles in their movies.
© 2017 Mark Nimar