Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden: Queer Film and the Reflex of Loss

Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer star as Elio and Oliver in “Call Me by Your Name,” directed by Luca Guadagnino with a screenplay by James Ivory based on the novel by Andre Aciman. Photograph by Mario Sorrenti for W magazine.

It’s the best gay movie of the year—and maybe the best movie of any kind to appear in 2017. It’s the story of two young men who, in spite of their own inability to articulate their attraction, come together to wrestle with love in an unforgettable landscape. That movie is God’s Own Country.

There’s also another movie out there about a same-sex relationship, a film that has garnered accolades and attention for its script, its performances, and its setting. The film is often moving and always lovely to behold, but it plays into some suspect notions that mainstream movies have about gay desire—and its denouement is dubious. This movie is Call Me by Your Name.

Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu in director and screenwriter Francis Lee’s “God’s Own Country.”

The film, written by the venerable James Ivory, based on the novel by André Aciman, and directed by Luca Guadagnino, unfolds in an enviable eden, the Lombardy of 1983, as Elio Perlman, intense and teenaged and urgently restless, finds himself falling for his father’s research assistant Oliver, as the Perlmans spend the summer in an Italian villa crammed with culture. In scene after scene, each one more subtly pressing than the one before, Elio inches closer to seducing the Apollonian cipher that is Oliver.

Lots of us have had an Oliver in our lives, that first romantic object that dazzles through beauty, the abruptness of availability, the sheer incredulity of desire, and the chance of consummation. Like many beautiful people who have learned they can earn admiration without making any effort to win it, Oliver absorbs attention as an entitlement and is curiously passive. His main intellectual task seems to be taking scholarly writings to the village typist. Once he loses his initial intellectual arrogance and stops leaving the villa luncheon table with a tossed off “Later,” he sheds his particularity, becoming as inert as one of the urns that Elio’s father, a classical archaeologist, would unearth and catalogue. Compared to Elio, who is furiously reading books, speaking three different languages, and riffing on Bach and Liszt on piano and guitar, Oliver becomes the sum of his linens and chest hairs. But his vacuity may be part of the secret mission of the story, to reveal to us what Elio may finally discover for himself: that Oliver is a bronze god with feet of clay. And maybe the actor Armie Hammer is miscast as Oliver—too firmly manly, too sluggish, to be a lover and foil to the electric Elio.

By the end of the movie, we have no doubt that Elio will grow up to be open-hearted, intellectually adventurous, and ready for love and deep romantic feeling, whether that bond manifests with men or women. It’s thrilling to imagine him a grown man—he’d be fifty-one years old in 2017—having navigated the world of AIDS in his twenties and come into his own as a person of sensibility and emotional generosity. Oliver remains more bothersome—and so do the motives of the movie itself.

In the epilogue, set during the December holidays, Oliver‘s surprise announcement to the Perlmans, delivered by telephone, seems like a deus ex machina designed to ensure that this love story, for no fault of its own, resolves on the truths of yearning. It seems to have occurred to neither lover to say, at the end of their Italian summer idyll, “Hey, let’s see how this goes. I know we’ve got an age difference and all, but how about we meet up at Harvard Square over Hanukkah?” Life would allow that—Elio’s parents, we learn, would encourage it—but the movie forecloses this option because it is invested in the sensibility of melancholy. It can’t open the garden gate to a path, however rough, for its lovers to follow.

Cementing the movie’s syndrome of sadness is the abrupt and arbitrary Act III introduction of Oliver’s interest in women. Back during their summer together, just as they close in on consummating their relationship, both Elio and Oliver find females who are making themselves available for romance and sex. Elio, horny and willing to experiment, arranges a tryst with a local girl—even as he anticipates his impending first sexual connection with Oliver. (Or maybe he beds the girl because he wanted to test his pull toward Oliver. The film sees its women as means, not ends, and Elio is too easily excused by the girl he uses.) Oliver, on the other hand, actively eludes a woman eager to make love with him, pedaling away from her on his bicycle as fast as he can. Except for his traditional, generic masculinity, which doesn’t correlate to heterosexuality, Oliver does not seem essentially straight or even bisexual at all. While it would be terrific to celebrate a character’s genuine bisexuality—which seldom shows up on a movie screen—Call Me by Your Name never commits to exploring it in any character-based way. In fact, it disses the complex truth of bisexual people. And it treats Elio and Oliver’s romance as inexplicably exempt from questions of orientation.

The theme of Call Me By Your Name, say many critics, is not gay love but desire itself, the inchoate and then suddenly articulated urges of late adolescence, as rendered by two glamorous lovers, and the development of a sensibility that admits vulnerability. The lesson is not love, they tell us; the lesson lies in how to be alive to desire. These critics blur past the same-sex content of the move to embrace its universality—which is the default reaction to queer content both in literature and in mainstream film. The faster we viewers can rush to see LGBTQ stories as applicable to all, the more comfortable we are with them—whether we are gay or straight.

Sure, every worthy work of art has not just particularized meaning but larger import. But nobody defaults to talking about Romeo and Juliet as the story of two clashing theories of desire, and nobody hurries to frame Titanic as social classes clashing. Call Me by Your Name encourages the same sort of reaction we saw applied a dozen years ago to Brokeback Mountain, when viewers averted their eyes from the spit in Ennis’s hand to focus less squirmingly on the Tragic Forces of the lovers’ separation. The necessity of being generally meaningful is a burden borne by any film about queers and other minorities: it must perforce transcend its particulars to invite us all in, lest it end up without a distribution deal.

Which is not to say that there are not many, many gorgeous moments in the movie. Lombardy should be nominated for best Italian Administrative Region; it exists beautifully out of time, even as it allows cameos of jarringly amusing 1980s pop moments in its piazzas and dance halls. Because neither Elio nor Oliver can articulate his desire, the movie must rely on visual associations to evoke the magnetism between them. The two of them bike through so many villages and vistas that you want to poke a stick through their spokes. And there are pristine ponds and pools in which they cavort and seduce each other, with Elio taking the lead over the mostly reactive Oliver, with the camera cutting away when things get too homosexual. The lens nearly always frames them from crotch level, which stirs in the viewer a curious prurience that the film’s content denies. The movie is ripe with food, especially fruit, especially one pivotal peach, which also deserves an Oscar nomination. His encounter with Elio and the peach rouses Oliver to his most tender and sexually persuasive moment.

One of several breathtaking encounters in the movie is the long, extended, highly verbal scene at the end when Elio’s father sheds the language of gesture that has dominated the movie and talks directly to his son about how the young man should embrace the pain that splits his heart. He knows all about his son’s liaison with Oliver, and he accepts and even envies it. The scene is extraordinary. Gay male viewers of this scene will find in Elio’s father the parent they wish they had.

Michael Stuhlbarg and Timotee Chalamet. Stuhlbarg portrays the father of Chalamet’s character in “Call Me by Your Name.” Photo by Mario Sorrenti for W magazine.

Exiled from this season of eden is the rest of the planet. Its absence echoes loudly. A moviegoer with any sense of history would immediately make a disturbing association between the year the movie is set in, 1983, and the risks of same-sex desire. When Oliver makes his fateful wintry phone call to Elio and his family, it’s hard not to wonder if this man–presumably no virgin, someone who at age 24 likely had sex with men as well as women, and who had heard the news of the epidemic descending upon men who have sex with men—is shrinking from a gay world under siege. If Call Me by Your Name had been truly interested in the fate of its lovers, it would have opened the gates to its garden and let the world in, for better or for worse.   

The movie’s final shot trumps all these concerns. Timothée Chalamet is astonishing throughout as Elio, a teenager who pursues his desire with panache and passion. Complex, volatile but intentional, prodigiously expressive, Elio emerges as a hero of the heart. The tour de force conclusion (even though the director doesn’t trust it and has to clutter it with text and sound) relies entirely on Chalamet’s unspoken but unhidden emotions. It is one of the most sustained, startling, and moving scenes ever made. Elio ultimately transcends his movie and his milieu to become a man we’d like to grow up to be.   

Nearly all of the celebrated mainstream queer movies of recent years tell stories that occur in the past. Think about it. Brokeback Mountain takes place from 1963 to 1983 in terrain that offers not a second of succor for its lovers. The Danish Girl unfolds in the 1920s, when trans sexuality was hardly a concept and could lead to death. Carol occurs in a lushly oppressive 1950s, in a world utterly unsympathetic to lesbians. A Single Man occurs on a single day in 1962. Milk, the story of San Francisco’s first out gay city supervisor, happens in the mid-1970s, in a world of new, post-Stonewall identity. Pride is the story of a group of LGBTQ activists helping out Welsh coal miners in Thatcherite Britain. Moonlight, except for its final third, is set in the Liberty City of the 1980s and 1990s. Call Me by Your Name, taking place thirty-four years ago, follows in this mode.  Sure, a lot of mainstream movies happen in the past, whether they feature Winston Churchill or Tonya Harding, but the reversion to the past takes on burdensome significance for queer films.

Situating queer stories in the past does not occur by accident. By sticking to times and places where queer characters live without social context, these movies don’t have to deal with gay people doing gay things, like falling in love, having social lives, creating a community, or being gay in groups. Except for The Kids Are All Right, there just aren’t many recent mainstream movies that center on LGBTQ people in a contemporary social context. Why is this? Would stories that explore queer lives in a queer context make heterosexual filmgoers uncomfortable?

When these movies dwell in the oppressive social norms and constraints of the past, they abet the reflex of melancholy, estrangement, and fracture that we all seem to prefer in the queer movies that make it to the big screen. Call Me by Your Name is the latest and possibly most beautiful manifestation of this phenomenon. It may not be a tragic story like Brokeback Mountain or A Single Man, but it follows a tradition of celebrating queer love as something meant to be lost. Except for Carol and The Kids Are All Right, LGBTQ movies that win awards enforce elegy. They thrust their heroes into solitude. They default to the seductive, reflexive myth that desire is most delicious when it is denied.

Queer folks deserve stories that don’t just have death and dearth in them. Think about what LGBTQ movies we have never seen because they never were made. Where is the lesbian Lady Bird? Where is the trans I, Tonya? Where is the gay male Boyhood? Wouldn’t those movies be fun to see? Aren’t they worthy stories too?

Opening up the possibilities of mainstream LGBTQ movies is not a matter of applying a social agenda to queer film, or wanting to watch only love stories, or asking for happy endings. It’s not entirely fair to criticize Call Me by Your Name for not offering what it never intended to give us in the first place. But we can cast a cold eye on the preconceptions that went into this film: its exemption from queer life, its ahistoricity, its retreat to the ease of the past, its lack even of forthright sexuality. Its commitment to fracture feels automatic rather than considered. And the movie leads us to consider what we deserve to see in movies that explore the expansive landscape of queer lives, past and present.

God‘s Own Country, written and directed by Francis Lee, may be a coming-of-age movie, but it is not a coming out story. Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) is already out to his friends at the village pub, and early on we see him having a zipless fuck at a cattle sale, where he screws a guy standing up and fails to say thank you, then bluntly shrugs off his partner’s sociable overtures. A friend at the pub where he drinks himself vomitous—a young woman home from university–tells Johnny he used to be a nicer guy, and we soon see why he’s devolved into numbness and sexual thuggery. He is the sole worker on the Yorkshire sheep and cow farm run by his infirm father who, angry at his own frailty, berates Johnny not just for getting drunk but for everything that goes wrong on the farm. Johnny seems to be trudging across a muddy moor that leads to a premature dead end.

The setting of God‘s Own Country is almost comically the opposite of the lush terrain of Lombardy. The Saxby family farm is a landscape only God and Heathcliff could love: windswept, barren, and as unforgiving as Johnny’s own father. You can practically feel the wind chap your hands. But soon a stranger comes to town, not an Apollo of a graduate student but Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian migrant worker, here to help Johnny. His arrival is more than a little implausible—that of all of the sheep farms in all the world, a gorgeous gay Romanian would walk into this one. Gheorghe is not on a continental vacation but a real worker, not just helping the Saxbys through lambing season but introducing them to the radical idea of making sheep’s milk. He also has an enchanting way with lambs. In the movie’s most harshly heartening scene, set in a sheep paddock, Gheorghe is literally able to create life out of death- one of the many moments that incites Johnny’s desire for him not as a “fuck buddy,” but as a man with a working heart.

For all his appeal, Gheorghe is a bit of a problem character. Clearly he is full of his own secrets and scars. Gheorghe is in the north of England out of necessity. “My country is dead,” he tells Johnny. Everywhere you look, he says, old women are throwing stones. The movie never quite accounts for Gheorghe’s story, allowing him to remain The Other, the Magic Migrant from warmer climes there to enlighten the icy native Englishman. In this regard, the movie resembles Victoria and Abdul, with mud. It wouldn’t have taken much to allow more scenes from Gheorghe’s perspective and make him a full and provocative protagonist.

Gheorghe is a temporary worker, rather like Oliver, except that rather than eating peaches he eats the Saxbys’ puddings, and rather than having a bedroom in a villa, he lives in a grody little trailer, a “caravan.” The movie sets us up for the same kind of romantic fracture that is the operating premise of Call Me by Your Name. Modern day shepherds, Johnny and Gheorghe directly descend from Jack and Ennis in Brokeback Mountain, and we know how well that worked out. But the emotional urgency of the two men—and the hot sex that pins the dominant Johnny—the demands of the farm itself, the near-wordless encouragement of Johnny’s paralyzed father and his dyspeptic but surprisingly sympathetic grandmother, and ultimately the big risk Johnny makes himself take, lead them to different ending. Even Johnny’s vision of his own landscape has been transformed, so that he can open his heart not only to another man but also to the grim glory that Gheorghe summons him to see.

Here is a queer film that does not exist in suspended adolescence, with its characters solitary, receding from their own realizations. Life on this sheep farm will never be easy, but we think they can make it. Johnny and Gheorghe are inviting us to a garden we can live in.

  • David Groff is a poet, writer, independent book editor. His book of poems, "Clay," was chosen by Michael Waters as winner of the Louise Bogan Award for Artistic Merit and Excellence and was published in 2013 by Trio House Press. His previous collection, "Theory of Devolution," was selected by Mark Doty for the National Poetry Series, was published in 2002 by the University of Illinois Press, and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary and Publishing Triangle awards. David’s poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Chicago Review, Court Green, Georgia Review, Great River Review, Inkwell, The Iowa Review, Margie, Mead, Phat’itude, Poetry, and other magazines. He received an A.B. from Princeton, an M.FA. from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and an M.A. in English/Expository Writing from the University of Iowa. He teaches in the M.F.A. creative writing program of the City College of New York.

  • Show Comments

  • Manning Harris

    I haven’t seen God’s Own Country, and I look forward to it; it sounds terrific. But the beauty and importance of Call Me By Your Name cannot be denied. It may lack the political correctness that Mr. Groff wants, but this is a film that could save lives. By showing that “love is love is love is love,” as Lin-Manuel Miranda famously said, it could prevent gay teens from committing suicide (they are the highest risk group). The author seems not to like Call Me because it transcends labels; I like it for those very reasons. It’s a gorgeous film; a huge blessing. Please give the politics a rest. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Keats was right.

    • etseq

      Be careful wielding the opprobrium of “political correctness” (a conservative dog whistle if there ever was one) when you aver in the very next sentence that this movie could save gay teens from committing suicide – sounds quite political to me! And since when is film criticism supposed to be devoid of political considerations? I think the author makes a very strong and necessary corrective to the overwhelming adulation CMBYN has received from most critics and reviewers enthralled as you seem to be in the naive idealism of anti-identitarian universalism.

  • Gary Ballis

    I’m 66, but I bet this was difficult to read–or finish reading. What was the point in the tiny text interspersed with the rest, goddamnit?

  • Mark

    I saw God’s Own Country last night and loved it – everything about the film is first-rate. Wish it had received the same kind of buzz ‘Call Me’ because for me, it’s ultimately better…. Here’s hoping these stories move more toward possibility! Thank you for the great analysis.

  • Jamie Anderson

    For God’s sake. Call Me is a wonderful movie about young first love, something we all experience. Every character in this movie is admirable, especially Elio’s parents who set a loving example for all parents of gay children. It’s uplifting, beautiful and inspiring. How could Groff miss the significance and beauty of this movie.

  • Matt

    Oy, this seems like angst for no reason. It’s a period piece, and at the time in the 80s, what happens is hardly outside the norm. Plus the book takes them 20 years into the future and the director has said he’d like to do sequels to show how their love story develops. CMBYN is an incredible story of awakening to love and the support of the parents is a lesson to be shared. Chalamet may be crying at the end, but it’s not all about loss. It does not need the fairy tale ending to convey it’s incredible messages,

  • Bryan James

    I loved the article and very much enjoyed the inclusion of what some folks consider “politics.” I believe it is almost impossible to separate being gay from having an opinion about the state of affairs.

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