The Movie Club

No, Call Me by Your Name didn’t need more nudity.

Entry 6: Call Me by Your Name’s detractors are wrong to insist that its sex scenes should have been more explicit.

Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name (2017)
Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in Call Me by Your Name.

Sony Pictures Classics

Dear Clubbers,

As we get deeper into this, I’m grateful to Kameron for his reminder that “the year in movies” and “my year in movies” are different things, and that our critical takes are shaped and informed by our personal journeys. A quick example: My movie year started with the cool-headed fury of Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro—a movie that some of you had on your best-of-2016 lists but that I didn’t see until January, just before its commercial release. I Am Not Your Negro sent me racing toward the works of James Baldwin: In the spring I devoured Go Tell It On the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country (the Great American Novel I never knew existed), and the collection Going to Meet the Man. That drove me to Baldwin’s movie essays in The Devil Finds Work, which in turn inspired me to rewatch some of the films he wrote about, from You Only Live Once to Lawrence of Arabia, with a new (or borrowed) perspective. In 2018, we’ll get to see Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, and all of that will doubtless inform the way I watch, hear, see, and consider it.

Because I don’t write criticism regularly, I see far fewer new movies than all of you. Kam, you’re at 200-plus 2017 releases and enjoying a respite; I’m at probably half that and having frantic fun catching up when I can. I’m working on a biography of Mike Nichols, and spent much of the year watching not only his movies but the movies to which they connect. A dismaying chunk of my summer was filled by the mostly awful films that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton made together just before and after Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Sandpiper, The Comedians, Doctor Faustus, Boom! … this threatened to become my version of the Sunken Place.

Speaking of which: That ending. Kam and Dana, you’ve made strong cases for Version B. But would that have simply allowed Get Out’s audience the satisfaction of grimly ratifying its own political precepts? See? The system will screw a black man every time. I’m glad Peele went a different way, because his movie isn’t really about “the system”—or maybe it is, but it’s about a system of which unequal justice is only one manifestation. And he makes his larger case terrifyingly well before we get to the darkly comic deliverance of the last scene he chose. So I’ll still go with that ending: I like the bookends of Chris surviving an encounter with the cops thanks to weird third-party intervention at the movie’s beginning and finale, and I don’t think Peele’s sociological acuteness is dulled by his declining to end on a note of futility. (Get Out reminded me, structurally, of 12 Years a Slave, also built as a journey into, through, and out of a nightmare.)

This year’s best movies seemed to spark a lot of discussion about endings. (Vague spoilers follow.) As I said, I’m not the biggest fan of Three Billboards, but I admire its will-they-or-won’t-they wrap-up, which puts two characters on a road to nowhere with their humanity hanging in the balance, and felt like a shrewd distillation of the questions Martin McDonagh wanted to explore. I appreciated the hard pivot toward fairy tale that concludes The Shape of Water, the snappy, strap-in-for-round-two postscript of The Post, and the final scenes of Todd Haynes’ underseen Wonderstruck, which reveals the solution to a puzzle you hadn’t quite realized was a puzzle.

And—Amy, can I get an amen?—I was knocked flat by the shot-on-the-fly final image of Sean Baker’s great, probing, and humane The Florida Project, the only movie to make all four of our top-10 lists. Mike Nichols once said he liked to articulate a movie’s theme in its opening moment (first line of The Graduate: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re about to begin our descent into Los Angeles”), and Baker finds a visual way to do it at the end instead: He gives us a snapshot of what it’s like to live in physical proximity to the American dream and yet light-years from it. He leaves his characters at a heartbreaking juncture—ahead of them, no way in, and behind them, no way out—and he does it without words.

Which brings me to the dialogue-free ending of Call Me by Your Name—that minutes-long close-up in which Timothée Chalamet’s Elio, still processing, starts to come to terms with the end of one narrative and the beginning of his own. It’s rare that a movie offers two kinds of acting virtuosity. But Call Me does. We’re given the deeply gifted Chalamet’s emotional transparency and intuitive physicality (that scene where he finally gets Armie Hammer to himself and climbs him was maybe the most joyous moment I saw in a movie this year). And in contrast, we have Michael Stuhlbarg’s indelible work as Elio’s father—an example of what a great actor with decades of experience, after unostentatiously building and deepening his character with very limited screen time throughout the movie, can bring forth within a single climactic monologue. Stuhlbarg opens up a man’s soul—he gives us a father’s loving delicacy about presuming too much, a conflicted middle-aged romantic’s unvoiced regrets, and a professor’s desire to teach a pupil. To be in a moviehouse and hear people start to cry at that moment is the best argument for the communality of the theatrical experience I can make. Well, that and Wonder Woman.

I liked Beach Rats very much; although its end felt to me slightly too didactic a take on the cost of the closet, the film is true and observant and compassionate, one of the highlights of a generally strong year for LGBTQ movies (see also God’s Own Country and BPM (Beats Per Minute), among others). Perhaps because I’m about the age that Elio would be today, Call Me by Your Name sits atop that list for me. I’ve been waiting my whole life to see one movie about same-sex first love that was not, on some level, about othering, ostracism, or the oppression of homophobia—a love story that isn’t also a de facto issue movie. It is a brilliant stroke, I think, to set Call Me in a chronological, class, and geographic bubble—nobody can say anything about the “privilege” of these characters that the movie doesn’t say itself. If any dissent from its very warm reception has frustrated me, it’s the low drumbeat from some gay writers that the movie somehow pulls its punches—that it’s too polite to look at sex between Elio and Oliver, that it should show more, that it needs to go there.

No, it doesn’t. First of all, nudity as a signpost of artistic integrity is something we should all move past. Second, penises are about the most readily available commodity in the whole large world of gay indies. But what dismays me most is that this critique feels like it’s about what the critic wants rather than what the movie needs. I haven’t heard a persuasive case that something meaningful would be articulated about Elio or Oliver if you showed sucking or erections or penetration; it feels more like an ideological insistence that Call Me should have the balls, no pun intended, to risk affronting more people, to be more in-your-face. As if the movie were a candidate that somehow failed to placate its base. (It’s also strange to see what’s described as Call Me’s reticence invoked as symptomatic of a double standard, as if mainstream heterosexual romantic dramas are brimming with vulvas and cumshots.) Yes, André Aciman’s novel is more explicit (in ways that feel persuasive and ways that don’t), but novels aren’t movies, and to put it plainly, I don’t think that a film adaptation owes its audience dick in that regard.

I want to focus on one crucial shot, when Luca Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom move the camera off of Elio and Oliver as they’re about to have sex. If you view that action as moving away, as avoiding something, as fearfulness, you miss what the camera is moving toward. In one of the film’s few temporal markers, it pans across a poster on the wall next to the bed—a French Open drawing of Björn Borg that is prominently dated 1981. Just two years later—right when the movie takes place—Larry Kramer’s AIDS warning “1,112 And Counting” would appear in the New York Native. Kramer’s words—“Our continued existence as gay men upon the face of this earth is at stake. Unless we fight for our lives, we shall die”—convey a vast and dangerous world outside of the very temporary sanctuary in which Elio and Oliver find themselves. We are in their present, but suddenly also in our past. Safe sex is probably not on their minds at that moment—not in the Eden that, as the camera moves past the wall to a tree outside the window, you’re reminded they are inhabiting only temporarily. For me, it’s a moment of sharp sorrow, not of timidity. To be sure, it can be valuable to think about what, or who, a movie doesn’t show you; it’s always worth considering what’s outside the borders. But sometimes, while you’re policing the margins, you can miss what’s right in front of you.

Heatedly, or at least warmly,