Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight, and the Cost of Critical Success for Queer Films

Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer keeping it cool in Call Me by Your Name.

Sayombhu Mukdeeprom/Sony Pictures Classics

This year may go down as a banner one for cinema focused on gay and bisexual men. Moonlight, the somber indie about a young black man’s slow sexual awakening, won Best Picture at February’s Academy Awards—even if it took two tries to hand the prize to the correct party. And a handful of similarly themed productions seems poised to follow in its path in the coming awards season.

Perhaps most prominently, Call Me by Your Name, director Luca Guadagnino’s coming-of-age drama due out Friday, has been a festival favorite since it debuted in January at Sundance, with further press and industry hosannas following at February’s Berlinale and the recent New York Film Festival. If you haven’t heard about it yet, get ready to, especially regarding the film’s controversial portrayal of sex across age difference and the breakout performance of its young star, Timothée Chalamet, who brings controlled emotional ferocity to nearly every scene.

Yet while the critical success of these films may auger a readier embrace of movies about same-sex relationships in general, the actual narratives of Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name in particular reveal a stubborn resistance—even among pedigreed and “challenging” indies—to depicting same-sex romances defined by romance rather than repression, obsession, and torment. And their polite, glancing treatment of same-sex sex actually feels like a retreat from the sexual frankness of earlier trailblazers like Brokeback Mountain, Shortbus, and Blue Is the Warmest Color. These new films may deserve their formal plaudits, but their progressiveness is very much up for debate.

Call Me by Your Name, based on the beloved novel by Andrè Aciman, focuses on Elio Perlman (Chalamet), the 17-year-old son of an antiquities professor who during the summer of 1983 welcomes 24-year-old American apprentice Oliver (Armie Hammer) to his enviable, if musty, home in northern Italy. Elio falls for Oliver, eying the older man jealously as he dances with the local girls and pouting when he sometimes declines to join the family’s alfresco dinners. Eventually, Elio’s internal fixation spills outward, and he finds his attraction reciprocated, though in more muted tones.

The pivotal scene occurs in rural seclusion after a bike ride: Lounging on the grass, Elio and Oliver finally kiss. Elio grabs Oliver’s crotch through his swim trunks, which achieve period accuracy by barely descending below his ass. Oliver admits that he’d been sending Elio signals from the start of his visit, like when, early in the film, the teenager recoils as Oliver gives him a just-beyond-bro-y shoulder massage on the tennis court. A bit later, when they finally head to bed together, all we get is the fumbling and flailing of especially bad foreplay. When Elio experiences his formative first encounter with anal sex (considered carefully in the book), the camera wanders over to the view out the window, and then back to some cuddling.

Alas, as the summer ends, so too must Oliver and Elio’s fling. The former seems to understand this, while the latter’s headlong infatuation is less easily cooled. And so the end credits roll over a long take of Elio alone, staring into a fireplace after a Christmas call from Oliver, his face contorted at turns by misery, remembered joy, uncertainty, fitful acceptance, and longing.

Longing and obsession are motifs that Call Me by Your Name shares with Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight, another coming-of-age drama. Moonlight observes its protagonist Chiron Harris at three life stages: bullied child with a crack-addicted mother in 1980s Miami; loner teen who kisses another boy, Kevin, on the beach; and adrift, drug-dealing young man. The film ends with Chiron and Kevin reuniting and tiptoeing, if not levitating, around an admission of their mutual feelings before sharing a (possibly post-coital) embrace.

To be sure, the films diverge aesthetically. The tender, lyrical Moonlight echoes Terrence Malick, and Jenkins has spoken at length about his debt to Wong Kar-wai. Guadagnino takes a statelier, classical approach. Pastoral Italy in the summertime glistens, as do the underarms of several characters. And like in other Guadagnino movies, the camera lingers in fetishistic close-up on objects, with soft-boiled eggs here replacing Tilda Swinton’s hair in I Am Love.

Yet Call Me by Your Name, despite a few half-hearted gestures toward the kinkiness of the book, often looks and feels like a peak Miramax-era Important Art Film. Like Moonlight, which though not exactly “square” isn’t particularly provocative either, it’s all very pretty. The trouble with this is that the dignified aesthetics rob the films of their erotic potential, and make same-sex desire into a machine of predestined ache and disruption, rather than a (sometimes bumpy) road to fulfilling pleasure and personal resolution.

While not all queer stories need be “happy,” one wonders why these films in particular have crossed over to and received such wide praise from straight viewers. Their distance from joyful sex and (functional) intimacy may broaden the audience, but it narrows what they see of and learn about the queer experience.

Both films feature kisses, gropings, and pivotal scenes of consummations—of a sort. Call Me by Your Name throws in some oddly lachrymose masturbation, bare butts, and an abortive blowjob that provides the movie some of its sparse humor. Yet as in Moonlight, where a reverse angle shot trains on the characters’ backs during that waterfront kiss-and-tug, there is in Call Me by Your Name a neutering restraint when it comes to depicting man-to-man physical insatiability, a greater aversion of the camera from gay intimacy than even 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, which included a memorable, and chafing, moment of spontaneous anal sex.

This is especially jarring coming from Guadagnino, whose earlier films have included cornucopias of skin and its (out-of-frame) penetration. Also, his (along with James Ivory and Walter Fasano’s) adaptation the novel denuded much of the source’s almost dark eroticism. In a notorious passage from the book, Elio opens, masturbates with, and comes into a peach. Guadagnino includes that moment, but omits the book’s crucial aftermath: Oliver seeing the peach and then greedily sinking his teeth into it.

Literary fiction can get away with more graphic sexual content than movies heading toward the MPAA ratings board, of course. That said, two under-the-radar indies out now found a way to more viscerally erotic—and happy—takes on gay sex. Robin Campillo infuses the political with the personal in BPM (Beats per Minute), which follows early AIDS activists in Paris. As Jeffrey Bloomer wrote in Slate, BPM ducks the “stilted formality” and “funereal detachment” of issue movies thanks to explicit sex scenes that manage to be hot, funny, and heartbreaking, all at the same time.

In the opening minutes of Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country, the Yorkshire farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor) has explored the rear ends of a cow (in the course of husbandry) and a local young man, whom he treats with somewhat less tenderness than the animal. Soon, his family hires a Romanian farmhand, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu). Johnny and Gheorghe waste little time in getting it on, at first violently. But that quickly fades to a warm, casual affection: shared baths, easy naked chatter, and a convincing mutual pleasure largely absent in Guadagnino and Jenkins’ films. Like Call Me by Your Name, it’s another story about a foreigner in a remote land awakening his host, but Lee and the actors don’t seem like strangers to lust and love.

Call Me by Your Name and Moonlight could have appealed to the groin without resorting to tawdriness or neglecting their intellectual and emotional priorities. They both evoke summer heat, but deprive the affairs at their center of a spark. At a time when LGBTQ rights and broader acceptance have required a toll of desexed normality, it’s worth asking what compromises have been made to these movies to make them palatable to critics and indie connoisseurs, not to mention wider audiences.

For his part, Guadagnino told the Hollywood Reporter that he left out more explicit sex scenes so as to “create [a] powerful universality” in his movie: “I didn’t want the audience to find any difference or discrimination toward these characters.”

But if the absence of difference—of material that challenges viewers to relate to desires, emotions, and even basic sex acts with which they are unfamiliar—is required to lift queer love stories out of second string festivals and limited releases, perhaps it’s time to bring the debate about the perils of assimilation into the cinema. The truth is, queers are different. Films shouldn’t mute that uniqueness, or stylize its pitfalls at the exclusion of its happiness, for fear of losing viewers or a shot at critical prestige. As one character says in Call Me by Your Name, “compromises are tragic.”