Queer Desire and Performative Masculinity in ‘Call Me By Your Name’


Spoiler alerts abound here. If you haven’t yet seen Call Me By Your Name, I’m not sure what you’ve been doing but stop reading this and go watch it. Immediately.

Last Sunday night, I biked to my neighborhood Alamo Drafthouse to see a movie alone, an experience that is, for me, akin to devouring a box of Girl Scout cookies post-bookstore splurge (that is to say, highly enjoyable). I finally saw Call Me By Your Name, the new adaptation of the beloved novel by Andre Aciman, and I spent those two hours in such a blissed-out state that I’m only now coming down from the high, and it’s been four days.

There are good movies, and there are good times to see movies, and then there are good movies that feel predestined to hit you in all the right spots at the exact right time. The latter was my experience watching Call Me By Your Name, the sumptuous and absurdly well-acted love story of Elio and Oliver, two beautiful dudes alive in a 1980’s Italy where everything is golden-hued and children inherit kindness from their parents and people read Heidegger for fun.

For the last few months, I’ve been thinking and writing and reading and talking an awful lot about male desire, and more specifically about the way that all women’s sexualities are shaped by male desire and structural male dominance. I’m talking, of course, about #MeToo. I’m talking about the lineage of sexual violence in my family and the invisible wounds that mark all the women’s lives I know. I’m talking about the conversation I had with my mother the day before the election, in which she told me, for the first time, about a sexual harassment case she’d filed after being relentlessly groped and assaulted at work, acts of violence she had buried somewhere in her body until the Molester-in-Chief’s words brought them to light. I’m talking about the stream of mini-horror stories we’ve all traded with friends and family post-election and post-Weinstein, like a gruesome game of Telephone.

What’s been most heartening about our current moment, though, is that we’re not just cataloging assault. Analyzing male social conditioning and how this conditioning leads to violence has become part of mainstream dialogue, as it should be. So maybe that’s why I didn’t realize, until Elio’s face had faded from the screen and I began walking out of the theater in a haze, that watching desire play out in male bodies would have such a profound effect on me. It’s not that I needed to be reminded that men can be good (call me in a few eons when we’ve finally dismantled patriarchal oppression, because that will be the only time I “need” to be reminded of male goodness). Rather, it was refreshing to see sweet, urgent, non-binary desire embodied in the male form. Elio and Oliver’s relationship is free of the regular trappings of hetero-masculine aggression and stoicism. Both men even poke fun at having to perform the male gender: halfway into the film, there’s a pivotal moment where Elio mocks Oliver’s “man” voice by making caveman-like sounds at him, at which point something loosens inside Oliver and he begins to speak more freely.

Call Me By Your Name also presents queer desire as part of everyday life, so much so that it often feels like it’s set in the future, as opposed to 35 years ago. The film’s relationships defy conventional gay/straight labels and cinematic stereotypes: Elio and Oliver have sex, of course, but Elio also has mutually desired sex with his girlfriend, Marzia. Oliver may be closeted, but his romance with Elio is allowed to shift and flourish without inciting cruel judgment from others. The smitten pair ride their bicycles through the sun-dappled Italian countryside and devour books and languish next to lakes, and there is no dark final act in which one of them is bloodied or killed, as is so often the case with queer love stories on screen.

I wanted to live inside Call Me By Your Name and never leave, for a couple reasons. For one thing, every square inch of Elio and Oliver’s world is saturated with loveliness. Elio’s childhood home is a centuries-old villa in northern Italy, and there are many, many shots of sunny Italian orchards and fields and al fresco lunches overflowing with fruit, wine, and four-course delicacies. Mostly though, it was the film’s depiction of desire that did it for me — sexual attraction as mutable, fluid, label-less. In an industry and a world that runs on gendered cliches (even, sometimes, when the ostensible goal is to break free of heteronormative narratives), this feels like a small revelation, particularly when we’re talking about a movie nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

Call Me By Your Name is the perfect antidote to the traumas that result from toxic, performative masculinity — traumas laid bare by the #MeToo movement. The film is an evocative look at a world set apart from these casualties of masculinity. It’s a hopeful reminder of what we’re working towards, of things to come.

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