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The almost ubiquitous praise of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name — nominated at the Oscars for a Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay — is slowly but surely being challenged by a growing body of opinion that questions the very queerness of the narrative. The film, adapted from André Aciman’s eponymous 2007 novel, might be the sort of onscreen romance all of us have been asking for a long time: It is a gorgeous representation of an almost improbable summer love between two impossibly beautiful men. But, its detractors claim it is hardly a “gay” film, seemingly refusing to grapple with homosexual identity.
Fecund: That’s the word a friend used to describe the love between musically inclined 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and 24-year-old American graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer), who comes to assist his historian-archaeologist father. In a small northern Italian town in the summer of 1983, where the film is set, the two young men discuss classical music and history, go swimming or dancing, and eat fruits — or masturbate into them. It is almost a Garden of Eden, but with two Adams, roaming about bare bodied, like the classical male sculptures they study. Yes, it ends in heartbreak, but so do most summer loves: Remember Roman Holiday (1953)?
But not everyone finds this idyllic version of love agreeable. “All utopias... are well-manicured lies,” writes Ben Ratskoff in the Atlantic. Ratskoff, perhaps rightly, finds Call Me by Your Name lacking in the cultural and identity politics of gayness that is an inseparable part of the lives of so many people in our world, whatever their sexual orientation or choice. Focussing on a scene in which Oliver almost eats — but finally does not — a cum-filled peach into which Elio has masturbated, Ratskoff accuses the film of prudery: “We are refused the salacious filth and sexualized male flesh that give gay culture its radical power.”
In India, where Article 377 of the penal code criminalising “unnatural sexual acts” is still the law — though recently questioned in a Supreme Court judgement — the kind of comfortable gay existence of Call Me by Your Name shows still seems very distant, and frustration with such a representation is understandable. Yet, I found it difficult to dismiss the film for being not sufficiently radical, and the prime reason for that was its writer, James Ivory. One half of the reel- and real-life partnership, Merchant Ivory, he was also the co-writer of the duo’s classic Maurice. An adaptation of E M Forster’s novel of the same name, it explores the love between Cambridge scholars in Edwardian England.
When Maurice was released in 1987, the AIDS pandemic was sweeping through the fraught landscape of gay culture, casting the shadow of death on the recently won precious few legal liberties. With little scientific knowledge about the disease, for a short period in 1982, AIDS was called “Gay Related Immune Deficiency”, and many doctors even suggested that it was spread only among men who had sex with men. It is estimated to have killed 35 million people across the world since then. Firsthand recollections describe it to be terrifying time — when those who managed to escape AIDS and HIV were always looking over their shoulders in a deeply ignorant and hostile society.
Call Me by Your Name provides an escape from this brutal reality — for, after all, isn’t that the purpose of all fantasy? A literal translation of utopia is “no land”; those who imagine one also know that it can never be. But is that reason enough to shackle the imagination? Or, for that matter, is it fair to critique someone for imagining a more ideal situation than the one we live in? And, would it not be ideal if two people — of whatever gender or sexual desire — could continue with their amorous interests without being fraught by social and existential crises?
It would stupid to think that Elio, to whom Oliver asks: “Is there anything you don’t know?”, is unaware of the crisis I described earlier. But would you take him to task for imagining — perhaps desperately hoping for — a better world than the one he lives in? That’s how all of us live and love, grabbing at the little utopias we construct in our minds and around us. Ismail Merchant and James Ivory imagined a utopia of sorts in Maurice — a happy ending, when it was nearly impossible. In Call Me by Your Name, Ivory continues with a similar imagination, and its audacity itself is radical. What would Elio have thought if he watched Maurice?