I was 15 when Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee's 2005 film about two cowboys who fall in love against all odds, hit theaters.
At the time, a mainstream movie about a gay romance, starring two major heartthrob actors, and a pretty explicit sex scene, was big news. Tidbits about the tent scene were passed around in hush tones in high school corridors. Seeing it was a rite of passage that largely depended on how chill your parents were or how skilled you became at sneaking into movie theaters.
I would be lying if I said I rushed to see the film for reasons other than my true love for Heath Ledger (RIP), but I very distinctly remember sitting in a theater with my parents (the chillest) and thinking that this was going to be a Thing. And it was. Ang Lee took home the Oscar for Best Director at the 2006 Academy Awards — though the film itself was snubbed for Best Picture — and Brokeback Mountain entered the still too limited canon of Hollywood films depicting same-sex love.
Call Me By Your Name, which stars Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet as Oliver and Elio, two young men who fall in love during a perfect summer in Italy, circa 1983, is poised to do the same — but on very different terms. (Although, I can foresee the peach scene becoming an unmissable high school corridor topic.)
In a way, it's deeply unfair to start a review of Luca Guadagnino's gorgeous film with a Brokeback Mountain reference, because they're really almost nothing alike. Both movies feature a love story between men — and that's about it. But actually, it's those very differences that make them worth considering together.
"When Brokeback Mountain came out, it was this really inflammatory thing," Hammer told Variety when the film premiered at Sundance earlier this year. "Sociologically, I would hope that we have evolved enough that we can see past that, and see the humanity, the truth that's present in every moment of affection."
The film, based on the 2007 novel by Andre Aciman, is first and foremost a gay coming-of-age tale. In fact, a poster released by Sony UK pairing a shot of Elio and his female friend Marzia (Esther Garrel) with a quote about romance was soundly trashed on Twitter for "straight-washing" what should be an undeniably gay movie. But Call Me By Your Name also goes a step further in breaking the mold of what we've come to expect from films about gay romance, and in that way, transcends its specificity.
To start, there is no antagonist in Call Me By Your Name. I sat through the film lulled by its lush sensuality but also on edge, waiting, at any moment, to be snatched out of my bliss by a derogatory comment, or a crisis brought on by intolerance. Every time Elio and Oliver went out in public, the sexual tension palpable, I was sure disaster was looming.
When I mentioned this to Guadagnino in an interview prior to the film's release this week, he challenged me: “Did you ask yourself why?”
I had. I realized, leaving the theater, that I had never seen a gay love story that didn't feature some kind of antagonist, the purpose of which is to either hinder the lovers' trajectory, or ultimately tear them apart. Brokeback Mountain, of course, springs to mind, as does A Single Man (2009), and Carol (2015). Even in Moonlight, last years's groundbreaking Best Picture-winner, homosexuality is something that has to be hidden for fear of reprisals from others.
"I think social evolution unfortunately moves at an analogous pace with physical evolution," Hammer said to me, responding to his earlier comments about Brokeback Mountain. "Even if we want it to happen quickly, it doesn’t, but we are evolving. There’s no antagonist in this movie. There’s no one that has to pay for being gay. No one’s family turns on them, no one gets sick, no one gets beat up by a pack of rednecks."
Those kinds of expected tropes are exactly what Guadagnino says he was trying to avoid. "We all strive to make something that wasn’t informed by the rules of the filmmaking game, but more about the exploration of the behavior between these two people. Every movie is a sort of a heightened replica of another movie," he said. "I don’t want to undermine the real, real lives of people who are oppressed now by homophobia in the world, which is a big issue. I’m from Italy, and it’s a big issue. But I think we have to be very careful as filmmakers, not to internalize that."
In a more traditional narrative, the father figure would play the role of the higher authority who breaks the lovers apart, while the mother would be the figure of acceptance. Once again, not so here. As Professor Perlman, Elio's father and Oliver's mentor, Michael Stuhlbarg is basically the dad everyone wishes they had. His monologue at the end is one of understanding, empathy, and love — not fear.
"I’d hate to think of acceptance as strictly a feminine trait," Stuhlbarg said. "I delighted and reveled in the things I got to say, because I felt that they were things that needed to be heard. He’s a very special father who at the same time offers up information to his son when his son needs to hear it. At the same time, [he] seemed wise enough to keep his distance to let his son go through what he needed to go through, yet remind him at the same time that he was present for him. It was a wonderful balance that I got to ride throughout. I loved what I got to say, and I’m glad it was said — by him."
Taking a step back, however, it would be too easy — and inaccurate — to hail this film as the cure for homophobia. Guadagnino admits that he had very little funding from his native Italy, where the film was shot, because major producers claimed they would never be able to run it on TV. James Woods' recent comments on Twitter, where he pointed out the protagonists' age difference (Elio is 17, Oliver 24) alongside a reference to "NAMBLA" (The North American Man/Boy Love Association, widely believed to endorse pedophilia), proves that we have a long way to go. Even the film's critical appeal can only be viewed to a micro-lens, given that the film world is generally liberal. The real test will come on November 24, when the film hits theaters in wide-release.
Still, the fact that this movie has received so much press, fan focus, and attention even before it's out in theaters makes me hopeful. A recent i-D story analyzed the overwhelming number of dedicated fan accounts springing up on Tumblr and Twitter, helmed by millennials who have yet to see the movie, but are drawn to its potential. Hot off his success in Lady Bird, Chalamet, 21, now has a literal cult following. (They call him "Sweet Tea.") Finally, and perhaps most revealing of all, 31-year-old Hammer was literally driven off Twitter recently when a clip of his character dancing to Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way" went viral. When was the last time a celebrity quit social media for something positive? (He's back, as of yesterday.)
And that brings me to another point: 12 years ago, the internet as we know it was in its nascent stages. Facebook — which, ironically, would provide Hammer's big break as the Winklevoss twins in 2010's The Social Network — had just been created. Twitter wouldn't come along until a year later, in 2006. So much is made of the impact of social media for a reason — for all its flaws, it has given a voice to those who have traditionally been silenced.
Like Brokeback Mountain, Call Me By Your Name is a phenomenon. The real difference, I think, is us. We're ready. Ready to be excited, ready to be swept away, and ready, finally, to embrace a gay romance as universal and relatable to all.
"Call Me By Your Name" hits theaters November 24.
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