Call Me by Your Name: When Political Influence Transcends Political Agenda

by Isabelle Kirkwood

In the brief history of gay cinema, directors, particularly in mainstream Hollywood, have faced a dilemma of methodology. One method can epitomize the gay experience as a gaudy, hypersexualized world in which characters have already accepted and immersed themselves. The other is a film where identity is at the forefront, where political confrontation and inner conflict drive a narrative that is riddled with emotional complexity and a climax of self-acceptance. (Cabosky, 2017) Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name breaks this distinction, demonstrating directors can have a radical effect on viewers without a radical style, and that subtlety and tact can be central components to minority representation in film.

Call Me by Your Name is a coming-of-age romance film directed in 2017 by Luca Guadagnino and written by James Ivory, based on the novel by André Aciman. In 1983, a precocious 17-year-old Elio Perlman is spending the summer with his family at their villa in the north of Italy. He meets Oliver, a PhD student who is interning for Elio’s father, a Greco-Roman scholar. Over the course of six transitory weeks, a timorous companionship forms between Elio and Oliver, as the uncharted emotions of first romance surface.

This essay will argue that subtlety is an effective tool for minority representation in film. To understand the political implications of Call Me by Your Name, this essay will first explain the role of cinema in imagining and forging societies, by viewing the film as a historical, political and social artifact, incorporating important issues through the use of genre in the politics of representation. Secondly, this essay will discuss how the film addresses sociopolitical issues related to gay representation through character. Finally, this essay will examine how subtlety in Call Me by Your Name is effective for addressing issues related to gay political representation through the examination of the film’s technical elements.

LGBT+ films forging and imagining society

The first portion of this essay will broadly examine cinema’s role in forging and imagining society, through the lens of Call Me by Your Name. Viewing cinema through a sociological lens, film narratives could be interpreted as historical, political and social artifacts incorporating important issues through genre in the politics of representation (Sonbert, 2015). Media with LGBT+ content has been grouped and named as a genre by distributors, and, by doing so, explicitly labels said media as LGBT. (Wuest, 2017). Politically, the existence of this category increases visibility and specifically offers LGBT viewers mainstream validation in the form of recognition by media companies, even for films with low political content, like Call Me by Your Name. Guadagnino did not view Call Me by Your Name as a “gay” film, but as a movie addressing the beauty of a newfound desire.

The value of gay images is that they provide implicit representations that feature both ordinary and extraordinary gays and lesbians in a thematic range, shrewdly giving those characters visibility without othering their identities (Dean, 2007). Call Me by Your Name deals with the protagonist coming of age, exploring sexual desires, and falling into a sentimental, albeit brief, romance. The film also avoids stereotypical or explicit depictions of homosexuals as sexually devious, social pariahs, or afflicted martyrs. If we understand gay films as a response to mainstream Hollywood tropes of homosexuality, by exploring subconscious and intuitive concepts like coming-of-age, this genre is a challenge to conventional films that centre on homosexual identity. Call Me by Your Name therefore gives the LGBT community a voice to a society that has only been spoon-fed tropes of a long-misrepresented minority group.

Subtlety discourse on sociopolitical approach to gay representation

The second portion of this essay will discuss how the film uses subtlety to address sociopolitical issues related to gay representation through the narrative element of character. The politics of gay representation in cinema can be addressed by subtlety through the medium, in narratives that express authentic but unconventional characters, free of any rigid sexual orientation classification.

Elio engages in sexual relationships with both Oliver and Marzia throughout the film, and rarely is Elio’s sexuality a topic of discussion or debate. The film’s lack of explicit focus on Elio’s sexual identity as gay or bisexual bears a broader political intention. Namely, the film embodies society’s movement away from the requisite for a label on sexuality, and is moving to a broader acceptance of individuals as unique identities that face similar challenges, but in different scenarios. Elio, an introverted and intelligent teenager, has an expressed insecurity about being Jewish in a Catholic country. Simon Levis Sullam and David Kertzer offer an historical account of how everyday Italians keenly engaged in the extradition of Italian Jews when Germany occupied Mussolini’s collaborationist republic. Although most historians have long characterized Italians as comparatively defensive of Jews throughout this period, the book details an era in which Italians catalyzed nearly half the arrests that drove their Jewish countrymen to Auschwitz (Sullam and Kertzer, 2018).

Although this film takes place long after the Holocaust, Elio’s implicit insecurity that is grounded in a historical resentment of Jews in Italy could speak to a more subconscious political trauma that informs Elio’s potential insecurities about his sexuality. Rather than stating the obvious, Guadagnino efficiently blends Elio’s varying uncertainties among a range of other relatable or relevant character traits. Characters and their relationships therefore embody more than their sexual identities in the film. Friendship, even in Oliver and Elio’s relationship, is just as consequential as their passion and lust.

The film frequently references the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, whose literature is Oliver’s topic of research. Oliver’s academic proficiency is in pre-Socratic philosophy, a rather unique domain, and one for which the Perlman family select him as a fellow. Heraclitus, one of the more eminent pre-Socratics, is distinguished for his assertion on change being at the core of the universe. One of his foremost considerations was that of the theoretical notion of “becoming”. He also had an unambiguous obligation to a harmony of opposites, asserting that “nothing is permanent but change”, similar to the relationship between Elio and Oliver. (Müller-Merbach, 2006) This attention on the essential fluidity of the universe serves as an analogy for Elio’s character development through the film, as he comes of age, learns new elements of his identity and learns to adapt to ever-changing circumstances, similar to how society and political systems adapt to new and emerging identities and ideas (Meckstroth, 2015). Presenting Elio’s character and sexuality as fluid, not static, is a powerful contributor to how society might also be inclined to perceive such concepts. If gay and bisexual representation in media were to imitate this approach, it could speak volumes to how filmmakers could approach gay representation in cinema.

Film’s political meaning

The third portion of this essay will break down some of the film’s more technical components to analyze how they to contribute to the film’s political intention. Call Me by Your Name draws on a variety of well-established French new wave directors such as Eric Rohmer (Di Mattia, 2018), with its employment of realism, but not at the expense of beauty There is no gaudy camerawork or devious editing. The film was shot with one lens, a 30 mm, to mimic human eyesight, and the camera movement allows the audience to follow scenes like an observer. Long takes are a window into the environment and the spaces these characters inhabit. Deep depth of field allows the space between characters become charged with emotion, allowing physical impulse, as opposed to theatrical dialogue, to drive the narrative. Physical, not verbal, reactions to feelings, translate dialogue into gesture and action, which can create an empathic response from the audience for the characters onscreen (Gaut, 2010).

Another major influence was undoubtedly the film’s screenwriter, James Ivory, director of high-brow period pieces and literary adaptations like Maurice (1987), a tale of gay love in early 20th-century England. The setting of northern Italy, although bucolic, becomes charged with emotion, similar to how Maurice represents nature as a freedom against the social restrictions of Edwardian England. Sense memory of the outdoors, translate the desires for, say, a summer afternoon’s enjoyment, to desires for love or sex (Finch and Kwietniowski, 1988). These are all issues which underlie the gay community; freedom, desire, and empathy, on the larger political stage. What makes Guadagnino’s film so effective is that these themes are not merely presented to the audience, but rather they are subtly and cleverly embedded within the film’s composition.  Creating scenes which speak to a larger audience although portraying a niche relationship, can create an audience response that opens a new lens of romance, and an ability to experience empathy for the other. James Ivory says about his scene building in Maurice, “It doesn’t seem to matter whether [the characters] are gay or straight, male or female. It’s a kind of universal dream of surprising or unexpected love, and I think everybody working on the film responded to that, too.” (Müller-Merbach, 2006)

Call Me by Your Name does not bear a political agenda. The film has no distinguishable cause. Anxious for the institution that challenges Oliver and Elio’s affair, the audience can experience a revelatory feeling when no such political force emerges, when the film opens a new corner of life and a new way of seeing things. (Piontek, 2012) But through Elio and Oliver, young gay and bisexual men now have protagonists with which to relate, as well as a knowledge that love stories can be as commanding, multifaceted and enchanting as any in Hollywood’s canon.

Conclusion

This essay has argued that subtly and restraint are tools for asserting political narratives in a way that becomes digestible, even palatable, to audiences who might view such films as propagandistic, if subtlety were not a key component. Through the use of mixed genre; the development of original, fresh characters; and the implementation of subtle cinematic technique, subtlety emerges to drive the film’s political intent, without overindulging political content. Call Me by Your Name demonstrates, subtly, but categorically, that filmmakers can have a radical effect on viewers without a radical style.

Works Cited

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Dean, James Joseph. “Gays and Queers: From the Centering to the Decentering of Homosexuality in American Films.” Sexualities, vol. 10, no. 3, 2007, pp. 363–386., doi:10.1177/1363460707078337.

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Finch, M., and R. Kwietniowski. “Melodrama and Maurice: Homo Is Where the HET Is.” Screen, vol. 29, no. 3, 1 July 1988, pp. 72–83., doi:10.1093/screen/29.3.72.

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Meckstroth, Christopher. “Socratic Method and Political Science.” The American Political Science Review, vol. 106, no. 3, 2012, pp. 644–660.

Piontek, Thomas. “Tears for Queers: Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, Hollywood, and American Attitudes toward Homosexuality.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 35, no. 2, 2012, pp. 123–134., doi:10.1111/j.1542-734x.2012.00802.x.

Quinlivan, Davina. “On How Queer Cinema Might Feel.” Music, Sound, and the Moving Image, vol. 9, no. 1, 2015, pp. 63–77., doi:10.3828/msmi.2015.3.

Sonbert, Warren. “Reel Companions: Contemporary Gay Cinema.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, vol. 56, no. 1, 2015, pp. 233–238., doi:10.13110/framework.56.1.0233.

Sullam, Simon Levis, and David I. Kertzer. The Italian Executioners: The Genocide of the Jews of Italy. Princeton University Press, 2018.

Wuest, Bryan. “Defining Homosexual Love Stories: Pat Rocco, Categorization, and the Legitimation of Gay Narrative Film.” Film History: An International Journal, vol. 29 no. 4, 2017, pp. 59-88. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/685503.

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