Last Sunday, I went to the movies with my husband. Normally, I would not devote a column to such an event, but this time, I cannot but make an exception. We visited Call me by your name, Luca Guadagnino’s much acclaimed movie starring Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer who portray the story of two young men who fall in love in the beautiful North-Italian countryside. ‘Let’s see how many pining gays there will be’, we joked when walking to the movie theatre. To our surprise, not that many: the crowd was a happy mix of everything, although a tat too white for a city such as Utrecht. Apparently, the story of the – impossible – love between Elio, the young Italian boy and Oliver, the (already mature) American student-assistant of his father, an archaeology professor, resonated with a far wider audience. The story is set in the 1980s and references to the period abound: the cassette player Elio listens to incessantly, Oliver’s wide shirts, pleated trousers and pastel shorts, and the sound track all reminded me of my teenage years, a troublesome period. And there is that picture of Robert Mapplethorpe in Elio’s bedroom: an unobtrusive, but crystal-clear reference to the cultural wars in America.
Elio is seventeen in the summer of 1983, when I turned fourteen. At the time, I did not fully get what was at stake with senator Jesse Helms and his objections to funding art exhibitions featuring Mapplethorpe’s work. I do remember seeing the photographs, but more importantly, I remember shying away from them as they stirred up too much confusion, too much insecurity about who I was. Also in 1983, Gerard Reve, an out-and-proud homosexual, living with two men at the same time, published Wolf, his fairytale-like novel about the fascination of a young boy with a somewhat older man. I read the book avidly and related to Wolf, though I could not articulate why (Nor did I really get what the dancing in this novel was a metaphor for…). The possibility that I would be asked questions about it, to have to discuss it with my teacher was so daunting; I crossed out Wolf from my high school reading list, opting for novels with safer themes. Call me by your name brought all these feelings back to me: the insecurity, the pain, the feeling of rejection. It surprised me that these feelings were still there, lurking beneath the surface of my current life and position with its safe and secure, hard-fought-over-but-won legal same-sex-married status. It took just 90 minutes in a movie theatre to be thrown back some odd 30 years.
But the movie is more than a trip down memory lane. It also filled me with a sense of accomplishment and pride, of the strides we evidently have made since the days of the cultural wars. It was heart-warming that this gay themed movie could attract such a varied audience. What giant steps we have taken that a director can make a mainstream movie about a gay love theme, because he is interested in desire, irrespective of its orientation .Isn’t it great that such a movie can earn the acclaim of mainstream movie critics? Amongst other accolades, Timothée Chamalet was nominated for the Golden Globe, the Screen Actors Guild ánd a BAFTA for his portrayal of Elio. Doesn’t it speak volumes that two young actors have no qualms about portraying gay characters, that they are not fearful of getting a ‘gay label’ which will diminish their career prospects? Ask Rupert Everett how, when he was Chalamet’s and Hammer’s age, the movie industry was working.
Not surprisingly maybe due to the current #metoo movement, the movie did receive some criticism as well. Armie Hammer, who plays the role of 24-year old Oliver, was attacked for co-operating with a movie that portrays a romance between a grown up and a minor. The criticism did not regard the fact that they were both men. Hammer dealt with the issue swiftly, twittering about the relationships of his accuser to much younger women. In my view the movie deals with this issue in a more nuanced manner: it is Oliver who, in the end, bows to social pressure, accepting an engagement to a girl he has had an on-and-off relation with. Elio is the one to be empowered by the experience of this first real love affair. His parents knowingly sent him off with this older suitor, neither avoiding nor preventing the issue, but simply acknowledging the obvious feelings their son has towards him. In the final dialogue between son and father – basically the only dialogue in this movie that otherwise tells its story through images of the beautiful Italian landscape and the sensuous, almost sexually explicit artefacts Oliver and the professor are cataloguing – the father comes clean: he has had these conflicting feelings too. He has opted to suppress them but he explains that it is far more valuable to feel hurt and pain than not to feel at all. Not feeling at all equals not being the person you really are. It’s a universal message relevant for everyone.
But all this nuance cannot make us turn a blind eye towards the current era. The fact remains that age (and often power) differences in sexual relationships can and should be questioned, particularly in the way they have apparently occurred in the film and television industry (and elsewhere). It seems we are experiencing a new cultural war in which Timothée Chalamet got mixed up as well. He made several movies last year, amongst them the yet to be released Woody Allen film, A Rainy Day in New York. After being criticized for working with a director who is accused of improper relations with his foster-daughter, Chalamet promised to donate the earnings of the movie to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), and New York’s LGBT Center. Apparently, in the current media-saturated art world, this is what you have to do in order to remain a relevant actor. Any association with suspect directors should be avoided. Maybe unintendedly, Chalamet acknowledged that currently it is unwise to choose the artistic reputation of a director over his social one. Whatever you may think of Chalamet’s gesture, it does raise difficult questions as to how we will remember the current decade in thirty years time? Will we see it as the decade of the rightful liberation of those in dependent positions in art worlds? Will we feel pride that we have overcome such troubled times? I hope we will. But I also hope that this will be the decade where we learn to take a nuanced perspective, the decade we learn to call out vice and artistry by their own names without equating the two.