On epic romances, accepting myself, and 'Call Me by Your Name'
I’m on the floor in the living room and my best friend Chris is sitting on the couch. It’s Saturday afternoon and we’re watching Boy Meets World on ABC Family. It’s an episode from one of the later seasons when the gang is in college. Cory and Topanga are planning their wedding. Chris says that Topanga is really hot. I agree because she is really, truly gorgeous. He says that he would like to have sex with her. I chuckle and agree, even though I don’t want to have sex with her. But what I really want is what Cory and Topanga have – an unshakable, long-lasting love full of ups and downs, a romance for the ages.
I’m on the couch and my mom is folding laundry. My dad is working the nightshift at work and my mom and I are watching My Best Friend’s Wedding. It’s playing on FX or TBS. Julia Roberts stole a truck and is chasing after Dermot Mulroney. There is desperation in her voice and there are tears in her eyes. She’s full of love for a man that she knows does not love her back. I think about how incredible it must be to love someone that much.
When I was pre-teen, I fell in love with love. I was so attracted to the tropes of fated lovers and epic romances. In high school, I consumed every episode of The O.C. and One Tree Hill, teen dramas filled with the kind of romance that appealed to me. Some of the first movies I remember loving – Blue Valentine, Closer, In the Mood for Love - all focused on a sort of devastating, life-altering love. These stories were, of course, all centered on straight people.
I do not recall a specific moment in time when I realized I was gay. Instead, it was just years of minor impulses and fleeting feelings that added up to a critical, unavoidable mass. For years, I rationalized away my feelings by telling myself that I desired sex with men, but wanted romance with women. I viewed my desire for sex with guys as an impulse, no different than hunger, thirst, or sleep. I thought of it as something I needed in order to get on with the rest of my life. For so much of my young life, I romanticized and idealized the love shared between a man and woman, thinking that it was something I would not and could not have with a man.
The sheer volume of stories I read and watched that concentrated exclusively on straight couples no doubt had a sort of indoctrinating effect. I was conditioned to believe that love, the kind which I so desired, was exclusive to relationships between a man and a woman. Of course some slipped through the cracks. Films like Brokeback Mountain certainly helped to scratch at the wall I built in my mind, but they also reinforced feelings of fear and risk.
Eventually, I came to terms with it. I came out to my parents on their 23rd wedding anniversary and we all went on our merry way, me out as gay and happier for it. But those feelings, those that took root at such a young age, persist over time. It’s like engaging in a tennis match with yourself – constantly batting away the feelings of abnormality in hopes that the faceless player on the other side of the net won’t send them back your way.
Then in January 2017, I saw Call Me by Your Name, the film adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel directed by Luca Guadagnino. The film tells the story of two young men who fall in love while spending the summer in the same house on the coast in Italy – one of them a young, American student, Oliver, and the other the son of the professor the other student is working for, Elio.
Even ten months after first seeing it, it’s hard for me to articulate the significant impact it had on me. The story is deeply affecting in a way that is both rare and profound. In the months since seeing Call Me by Your Name, my mind has obsessively dissected just how the film managed to take such an intense hold on me. Naturally it’s impossible to break it down to one thing. In fact, to name just one reason would be to reduce the film’s power.
Call Me by Your Name allows its characters to lust and love openly and freely in a way that is not only refreshing, but also inspiring. Guadagnino’s direction saturates every single frame with a sense of wonder and discovery, desire and passion that does not feel unnecessarily restrained. The movie charts Elio and Oliver’s relationship from their very first shared glance, full of recognizable reticence and curiosity, to their first kiss, bursting with excitement and affection. As their relationship evolves, their sexual relationship is not ignored, but explored. They are never, not for a single moment, depicted as perverse or wrong.
The film walks a delicate, but important line that balances the role of Oliver and Elio’s sexuality without making the movie about their sexuality. The story is first and foremost about their love, consuming and passionate. The movie does not seek to make an explicit issue out of their romance being between two men. In fact, the film never goes so far as to name them as gay, bisexual, or any another label. Some audiences will no doubt take issue with this, but it speaks to how the film chooses to frame the relationship.
Just as romances about straight characters do not seek to prop up the sexual politics of all heterosexuals, Call Me by Your Name does not aim to depict the experiences of all gay men. A similar conversation happened last year in regards to best picture winner Moonlight. The film spoke beautifully, poignantly, and specifically to the experiences of gay black men, particularly those raised in and around poverty. It would be wrong to strip away or reduce the identity of that story and those characters for the sake of “relatability.” The same goes for Call Me by Your Name. A film need not speak for everyone in order to be considered significant.
I think we undersell the importance of a personal, subjective relationship to a film. There’s a separate piece I could write about how Call Me by Your Name is “objectively” a great movie, but the degree to which this film landed with me on a personal level is undeniable and rather inseparable from how I feel about it generally.
Call Me by Your Name reminded me so much of the epic romances and fated lovers I’d watched as a kid. For once, I saw characters love and lust in a way that was recognizable to me, that felt open and real, passionate and uncompromising. It’s an understatement to say that it was therapeutic for me to witness that. The movie helped reduce the size and significance of the wall constructed in my mind years ago. Leaving the theater, I felt myself embracing my sexuality and myself more than I ever had before.
It is the rare film where every single element feels perfect on its own and they work together to create something really magnificent. There is something almost gracefully unyielding about the way this story found its way under my skin. It is simultaneously classical in its rhythm and pacing – assisted strongly by James Ivory’s script that ebbs and flows with a distinct magic and charm, allowing the audience to discover the love alongside the characters.
There are great movies and then there are those movies that take root in your heart, breathe life into your soul, and make you feel more alive. It’s an inspiring feeling, one that moved me to tears and brought greater joy into my life. I found myself in this film, but not just in the characters and the way they look at one another. I saw myself in the way they love, the way they lie in the grass, swim in the pool, whisper to one another, wait up at night for the other. I heard myself in the sound of their bikes against the gravel road, the echoing of the grand piano, the patter of footsteps coming from the nearby room, and the way they exhale as they kiss one another. It's love come to life, poetic and electric.
Even in the final minutes of the film gives way to the unavoidable heartbreak, I felt myself full of a unique and fulfilling energy that has sustained me through some of the more difficult moments in my life in the last ten months. For me, Call Me by Your Name is not a great piece of art; it’s a triumphant reminder that who I am and who I love can be just as moving, romantic, and significant as all the stories I’ve seen told before.