Call Me by Your Name and the Tragedy of Homoerotic Masculinity / Brandon Sward

Image from Call Me by Your Name. Image © Sony Pictures Classics

It’s the summer of 1983 and against the backdrop of a seventeenth century villa, verdant countryside, and tranquil pools, two young men are falling into something like love. Oliver is a virile 24-year-old doctoral student hosted by Professor Perlman and Elio is his brilliant and brooding son. Elio initially regards Oliver coolly, resenting his room being taken over as well as the cavalier and self-assured demeanor of its seasonal guest. Tall, tan, and blond, Oliver immediately becomes the talk of this small Italian town and at an early party makes out with Chiara, a young local woman, on an outdoor dance floor as “Love My Way” by The Psychedelic Furs blares over speakers. Elio is visibly jealous, even though he’s also flirting with his female friend Marzia, whom he comes to lose interest in as he becomes more invested in Oliver. And so begins a meandering wooing that encompasses daytime swims, long walks, an archeological trip. Elio obliquely confesses his feelings to a reluctant Oliver, who eventually yields to his advances after one of their swims.

The partnership grows chilly in the ensuing days only to pick up again after Elio leaves Oliver a note. They finally have sex and continue to do so until Oliver returns to the US after the two take a parentally endorsed trip to Bergamo, leaving Elio heartbroken. One of the hallmarks of the film is how it renders plausible the courtship between Oliver and Elio. Despite their age difference, Oliver and Elio appear to be near equals, constantly engaged in battles of verbal one-upmanship in order to temporarily establish the superiority of one over the other. The instability between them means it’s difficult to anticipate what’s going to happen next. Will they finally have sex? Or at least kiss? Who will give in first? These moments of suspense are not granted to Oliver’s and Elio’s female partners. Marzia and Chiara submit a bit too readily to Oliver and Elio and as such have almost no character development. The primary narrative function these women play in the film is not as romantic partners to Oliver and Elio, but as means of facilitating developments between them.

We meet Elio as a virgin and witness his first sexual encounters with Marzia. While Elio and Marzia have obviously known one another longer than Elio and Oliver have, Elio quickly subordinates her to Oliver, bragging about her in front of him to gauge his reaction. Elio has wildly different levels of agency with regard to Marzia and Oliver. With Marzia, Elio is the one to initiate sex, to emotionally disinvest, and to ultimately rebuff, but his pursuit of Oliver is much more fraught. Perhaps it’s precisely due to Oliver’s hesitation that he’s a desirable conquest for Elio—perhaps the sweetest victories are those hardest won. There’s a curious mix of resistance and surrender between Elio and Oliver, two qualities that should ostensibly be in tension. Again, this sort of ambiguity isn’t present between Elio and Marzia or Oliver and Chiara. It’s as if the uncharted character of the affair between Elio and Oliver makes it all the more enticing for them, raising the question of whether Elio and Oliver could have had such experiences with Marzia or Chiara.

The most obvious answer to what separates Elio and Oliver from Marzia and Chiara is gender. Could gender dynamics help us understand why Elio and Oliver come to choose one another over Marzia and Chiara? Elio’s and Oliver’s heterosexual couplings follow the classic model of the man pursuing and the woman being pursued, the man giving affection and the woman receiving it. Call Me by Your Name asks how these dynamics work in same-sex pairings, especially when involving men. Regardless of what sexual proclivities they come to display over the course of the film, both Elio and Oliver view those around them in a similar way. We might describe them, early on, as adopting the classically male attitude that the world is to be subjugated, to be molded by their will.

That said, the gender education the Perlmans give their son is admittedly non-normative. Were there Oscars for parenting, Elio’s dad would surely be the frontrunner for “most understanding.” Nevertheless, even this wildly progressive household demonstrates several familiar dynamics. In contradistinction to her husband, Elio’s mother is silent most of the movie (the longest we hear her voice is when she’s sight translating German). She’s more caretaker than nurturer and though she betrays a silent understanding when she picks up her son from the train station, it’s left to the father to broach the subject with Elio. And this is to say nothing of the other women in the film, such as the Perlman’s maid Mafalda, who may as well have been mute, as she serves no function other than washing dishes and doing laundry. While there’s arguably much to admire in the Perlmans, we ought not ignore the aspects of their family that actually don’t deviate too far from the gender politics of many households. We’re not watching an alien world; we’re just watching one a bit looser than most.

With this looseness comes a relative freedom from labels. Elio in particular seems to glide effortlessly from Marzia to Oliver. There is no tortured self-examination, no anguish, no closet (indeed, we’re led to believe the age difference between Elio and Oliver is a higher barrier than gender). It is as if gender is as sexually irrelevant to Elio as hair color. While we have less backstory for Oliver, the film suggests that he too is unencumbered by a need to identify himself. Despite being embraced as a “gay movie,” there’s nothing particularly gay about Call Me By Your Name except a highly sanitized sex scene; at least if we understand “gay” to signify some sort of enduring sexual attachment to the same sex. The film tells us nothing of Elio’s future and the film ends with Oliver’s return to heterosexuality. This said, no relationship occurs within a vacuum and even this hyperliberal idyll is not immune to gender ideologies.

If male desire plays out against the backdrop of the subjugated woman, then heteronormative unions, in the logic of this film, create less friction than same-sex ones. With Elio and Oliver, we might understand both men as trying to enact their subjugation desires. Yet their homoerotic desire cuts against what it means to be a man: both parties want to subjugate, and be subjugated, simultaneously. Accordingly, we would expect the opposite of what actually happens in the movie. If same-sex relationships can be more difficult because they violate gender norms and straight relationships are easier because they adhere to them, then shouldn’t Elio and Oliver end up with Marzia and Chiara rather than one another? But returning to a point made earlier, perhaps the most attractive goals are the most unattainable ones, and being with one another neutralizes the gendered advantage Elio and Oliver have over Marzia and Chiara. The film goes to great lengths to show us just how smart Elio and Oliver are. Conversations drift from classical music to Heidegger to etymology and back again, as if we’re being told, “These men are clearly too sophisticated for boring heterosexuality.”

One of the reasons Oliver and Elio are so successful is because their subjugation desires have been rerouted onto women, allowing them to confront one another as quasi-equals (age proves to be less a barrier than gender, though the film is very much one of nested inequalities). Even if there can be reciprocity across gender lines, we must admit that Oliver and Elio are far more engaged with one another then they are with their female lovers, precisely for the reason that the path between them is less mapped than that of normative bourgeois heterosexuality. The label-defying Oliver and Elio reinforce this, as there’s nothing preventing them from remaining with their female partners. Consider the disdain with which Elio regards the gay couple his parents entertain at one point; it’s clear the film is making an effort to distinguish Elio and Oliver from more pedestrian sexualities, homonormativity included.

Trying to depict sexual desire caught between and fleeing from competing normativities, the film takes up a troubling position. As long as it links maleness to subjugation and portrays women as the passive subjects of this subjugation, then male homoeroticism is prone to tragedy. Without gender difference to direct desire along certain grooves, a space is opened up for a playfulness that is at once freer and more anxiety-ridden than traditional heterosexuality. Homoerotic role flexibility can produce both freedom and anxiety, insofar as it falls upon the pair to decide what they want their relationship to look like; there are fewer social scripts available. Perhaps there is something about the unsettledness of Elio’s and Oliver’s lives that momentarily shelters this kind of experimentation. Yet the film forecloses such radical openness. Indeed, the final twist of the knife comes at the end of the film, when Oliver calls during Hanukkah to let the Perlmans know he’s engaged. When even Mr. Perlman confesses to Elio, “I may have come close, but I have never had what you two had,” we begin to feel the weight of the mores quietly steering us. It is as if happiness is some shimmering moment we pass through on our way to “real life”—hold on too tight and you’ll pay a price.

There is, however, nothing transhistorical about these dynamics. Our ideas about gender and sexuality have changed over time and continue to do so. The presence of references to Greek antiquity in the film through Dr. Perlman and Oliver’s research is likely not accidental, since that society famously practiced pederasty, or sexual relationships between adult men and pubescent adolescents often involving the exchange of knowledge. Just as the Greeks had a culture within which pederasty made sense to them, so do Elio and Oliver make sense of themselves and one another through their own cultural categories. As Elio and Oliver shift their attention from women to one another, the film makes visible some of our taken-for-granted assumptions about gender and sexuality. Why should it be that such an idealized romance occurs between two youngish Jewish men for a summer in Northern Italy during the ’80s after pursuing women?

This “uniqueness” is also underscored by the shared Jewish identity of Elio and Oliver, who shows up sporting a silver Star of David necklace, prompting Elio to start wearing his as well. As God’s “chosen people,” Jews have historically lived at a certain distance from the communities they found themselves in after leaving the Levant. Antisemitism has forced Jews to develop strong ties with one another as a survival tactic. This turning inwards also characterizes many gay enclaves, which were intended to create “safe space” for non-normative sexuality, shielded as well as possible from the forces of homophobia. By dint of their Jewishness, Elio and Oliver are already set off from those around them, a difference compounded by their intelligence. At the same time, Elio and Oliver share the sameness of their gender, in a way analogous to the connection between Jews. Homoeroticism and Jewishness are both associated with outsiderness, and both were arguably linked to superiority at some historical moment (the Greeks considered pederasty as the highest form of sexuality and the Jews were selected by God).

Ultimately, what brings Elio and Oliver together is also what drives them apart. Elio and Oliver are able to temporarily flout social customs in a way that makes them feel agentive, the authors of the own lives, even though they are of course brought together through mere happenstance. But the summer proves to be an island from which they return to their respective lives and the expectations attending these lives. In any case, homoeroticism has some sort of leveling function that the intellectually precocious Elio and Oliver take as an opportunity to prove themselves against someone they see as an equal. One of the biggest questions leftover is why Elio and Oliver do not seem to deem women true peers. When Oliver says, “Call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine,” he’s effectively asking Elio to recognize an equality cum interchangeability between them that for whatever reason they will not or cannot share with women.