Call Me by Your Name is the latest in a long line of same-sex romances to have its queer characters diminished as empty vessels, yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. This essay is featured in the ebook Call Me by Your Name: A Special Issue which is available for purchase here.
Empty vessels in love.”
That’s the four-word critique of Call Me By Your Name that stuck like a spitball to my Twitter feed a couple weeks after I saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival. A summer romance between a Looney-Tunes-vibing only child and his father’s Disney-prince-looking research assistant, Call Me By Your Name has enjoyed such a sunny reception that some viewers are bound to be disappointed. The tweet’s a teapot-sized take, so I hesitate to provide the tempest. The problem is that it’s not an isolated event. “Empty vessels in love” is how detractors describe every new same-sex romance.
You could set your watch by it. As soon as a queer romance gets a wide release, it gets diagnosed with a complete lack of characterization. Moonlight is a fine film, but Chiron is too blank and chameleonic for us to get to know him. Carol is so formal and remote, it may as well be Rivendell. Don’t even get people started on Looking, that HBO slow drip, emphasis on drip. No matter the context — a child coming of age, a ‘50s melodrama, an understated everyday romance — our cultural woodpeckers routinely discover gay characters to be skin-deep.
According to this charge, these queer protagonists aren’t real characters. They just fulfill a function, one role or the other in a same-sex romance. Elio and Oliver don’t have personalities, or goals, or any animating spirit beyond the fact that they’re in love with someone of the same gender. It turns out protagonists in gay romances are nothing but gay. Querelle horreur.
In The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo describes how critics have historically disqualified themselves from reviewing movies about gay people. Some abdicate upfront, in one of the funnier forms of gay panic, and some give it the old college try, and in the process, inadvertently reveal their blinders. Our modern myopics are just the latest adherents of a well-documented tradition.
To keep things in perspective, these 21st century takes are just the peas under several mattresses of glowing notices for these films. But the issue with these dismissals isn’t which side of the fence they land on. It’s why. What is it about gay characters that invites some critics to diminish them?'What is it about gay characters that invites some critics to diminish them?'Click To Tweet
It’s possible they have no inner life. Or maybe they just live on the DL. Take Moonlight, a coming-of-age story in which a boy named Chiron is himself explicitly trying to figure out who he is. The blank canvas is the point. A lovely moonlit hand-job from another boy might have liberated him if not for a subsequent betrayal by that boy. Instead, Chiron refuses to confront who he is, spending the next decade transforming himself physically and repressing himself emotionally in order to hide. Chiron’s repression is so outsize and moving it recalls James Baldwin’s memorable metaphor from Giovanni’s Room: Chiron’s run so far, so hard, only to find himself brought up short once more before the bulldog in his own backyard.
After decades of AIDS tragedies and gay bashing docs, gay cinema, like gay life, is now haunted by repression. Legalizing same-sex marriage doesn’t suddenly undo the years of bullying in the schoolyard, the sermons at church, the double standards of the media, the control of lawmakers, the thousandth papercut of a local baker refusing to make a cake for gay customers because he “doesn’t believe in,” whatever that means, same-sex marriage. The pressure is unbearable.'After decades of AIDS tragedies and gay bashing docs, gay cinema, like gay life, is haunted by repression.'Click To Tweet
It’s easy to pick up on the physical dangers of such a society on-screen, but it’s the psychological toll that informs Frankie’s inertia in Beach Rats, Johnny’s self-destructive streak in God’s Own Country, and Russell’s relationships with not only love interests but his own friends in Weekend. Chiron is blank for a reason, and it’s not because there’s no there there. The nice respectable gays of ‘80s mainstream film may well have been thinly sketched in their desperate appeals for broad approval, but the new breed is just speaking in code.
Which brings me back to the empty vessels of Call Me By Your Name. Timothée Chalamet plays the awakening Elio Perlman as a bundle of nervous energy, forever coiling up and springing to life as he explores his first crush on a boy. Armie Hammer’s older Oliver is more opaque, wearing a non-threatening façade specifically for the purposes of romantic dissuasion. It’s a movie all about interpretation: first, Elio wondering if Oliver’s sending the signals he thinks he is, and then, Oliver trying to figure out why Elio reacts the way he does once they’re together.
Take the scene where Elio probes his friend Chiara (Victoire Du Bois), a local girl with a crush on Oliver, about her intentions toward him. He practically waggles his eyebrows when he asks, “Il est beau aussi, non?” Had he said it in English, he might just ask if she thinks he’s handsome. In French, he gets to say so himself. “He’s good-looking, too, isn’t he?” And he can barely restrain his suggestive smile, reveling in the thought. It’s the most upfront Elio gets to be until he kisses Oliver, even more so than his confession of feelings for his beau, which is entirely in code. Here, under the guise of girl talk with a friend — and it is girl talk with a friend, only not the way she thinks — he gets to say out loud how hot his crush is. A superficial read could write it off as more plot mechanics in the temporary rivalry between the boys over Chiara, but it’s richer than that.
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Return to Italy for a summer, equipped this time with the ability to articulate what made it so ineffable and unforgettable.
Here’s a gay romance that lives or dies on the close read, but for once, the queer lovers are refreshingly unstunted. In fact, they’re unusually untouched by almost all of the gay-movie setbacks. It’s a movie about men having sex with men in 1983, and not only does HIV never come up, but neither does the condom. It’s a movie about a boy discovering he’s queer, and not only does he never have to come out, at least not in so many words, but he’s embraced by his loved ones with extraordinary generosity. It feels like a fairy tale. It’s not.
What it is is a mercy. Only in the epilogue does being gay pose any consequences, and then, only hypothetically, when Oliver tells Elio he’s lucky to have his accepting parents: “My father would have carted me off to a correctional facility.” After such a sunny love affair, the line stings, no less for its immediate context: glibly, over the phone, wrapped in a message confirming the affair is over.
It’s not that the external forces that haunt gay cinema don’t exist in Call Me By Your Name. It’s that for this one summer, for this one couple, they don’t draw blood. But they’re there. They’re why Oliver pushes Elio against a wall in the town square and says he wishes he could kiss him but can’t. They’re why, as Elio says when they finally do get together, “We wasted so many days.” If only they could have been as open about their feelings as Elio and his girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel) are allowed to be. Repression, actually, is all around.'It’s not that the forces that haunt gay cinema don’t exist in CMBYN. It's that for this one summer, for this one couple, they don’t draw blood.'Click To Tweet
But outside of the shot of a nude Armie Hammer, facing away but twisting toward the camera so that his nipple achieves its maximum silhouette, Elio and Oliver are hardly statues. They’re constantly showing and telling us who they are, from Elio’s passion for music to Oliver’s American clumsiness. The way Elio slams an icebox door shut and walks off as it rebounds open, relying on the maid to clean up after him, reveals Elio the only child. So does the way he lies across his parents’ laps, performs for guests, and speaks to his parents’ friends like a peer.
What comes across most about Oliver is his careful distance. He’s a social butterfly, making friends with locals and even sharing a kiss with Chiara on the dance floor, but there’s a slippery superficiality to his friendliness. He’s playing a part. Where he comes alive is his teasing of Elio, as when he walks in on Elio poorly pretending he wasn’t just masturbating and tries to drag him off the bed to go swimming. Or when he tells Elio they’ll meet at midnight and later, right in front of Elio’s mother, grabs his wrist and asks for the time, stoking the fires and smiling at his private joke. These are characters informed by history, enriched by passions, enlivened with humour, and locked in a coded courtship.'These are characters informed by history, enriched by passions, enlivened with humour, and locked in a coded courtship.'Click To Tweet
What’s really confounding about the emptiness charge is Chalamet’s Elio is one of the great performances of how singularly weird human beings are, especially when they’re alone, especially when they’re teenagers, especially when they’re only children to expats and trained to perform. Elio sprawls across his girlfriends’ laps, dance-slides through a party, hurls himself onto bed, twirls in place, leaps over hedges. It’s as if director Luca Guadagnino has channeled all of his usual maximalism into Chalamet’s body, compensating for a watchful camera and languorous cut with Elio’s wandering arms and tireless feet.
Even when Elio’s at rest, cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom brings out his specific strangeness, foreshortening him on the couch and reducing him to a head with shoulders when he’s hunched over. At one point, Elio’s whirlwind physicality and good, old-fashioned hormonal overload drive him to a Personal Shopper moment. Sneaking into Oliver’s room, he finds a pair of his Adonis’ swim trunks. He sniffs them with his back to the camera, privately enjoying the moment. He lays them out on the bed, considering them. Finally, he slowly rocks back and forth on all fours, fantasizing about something or other. It’s a moment of disarming honesty.'What's really confounding about the emptiness charge is Chalamet’s Elio is one of the great performances of how singularly weird human beings are.'Click To Tweet
The sexual frankness reaches its climax when Elio enjoys a peach, sexually that is. On his face, we see the idea pop into his head, his hurry to get there, his second-guessing, and his helplessness at the point of no return. It’s funny and embarrassing and erotic and real, and it’s safe to say I’ve never seen it before. That night, Oliver realizes what happened and goes Little Jack Horner on the peach, tasting his partner the way so many do in real life and so few do on-screen. This too is funny and embarrassing and erotic and real, and I’ve never seen it before, either. It’s a shame they’re such non-characters or they might have done something interesting.
“Empty vessels” is almost exactly wrong. As the proverb has it, “Empty vessels make the most noise.” Except that characters in gay romances aren’t making too much noise, but too little. So little they run the risk of going unheard entirely.
We’ve gone deep on some of the queer films Brandon mentions in this piece which have also been misread as featuring two-dimensional characters.
We interviewed Beach Rats director Eliza Hittman about the sculptural quality of the male body and telling a subjective story.
We talked to actor Josh O’Connor about the self-destructive streak of his character Johnny in God’s Own Country, then went even deeper on what makes his performance so moving and nuanced.
And we talked about Russell’s fear of the outside world in Weekend and how it relates to Andrew Haigh’s explorations of the comforts and toxicity of home in all of his films.