Anything Can Happen in the Greenwood: The Queer Genealogy of Call My By Your Name
Amid the accolades and award nominations, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (2017) has drawn thoughtful criticisms from queer critics and media commentators for its perceived reticence toward gayness and gay sex. As in André Aciman’s 2007 source novel, the film follows the story of two young men—Elio, the son of a Classics professor, and Oliver, the professor’s summer research assistant—whose romantic and sexual relationship unfolds, significantly without labels, in the idyllic Italian countryside. According to Ben Ratskoff in The Advocate, the film eschews gay culture and fetishizes “straight-acting romance, [. . .] a sort of country house fairy tale in which the two leads just happen to be men.” Miz Cracker’s review in Slate similarly contends that the film’s success, and that of the novel before it, reflects a gay infatuation with straight men, resulting in “a gay masterpiece that is absolutely not gay.” More recently, D.A. Miller has characterized it as yet another mainstream gay movie that “limit[s] the visibility of gay male sex, whose depiction is scrupulously kept from approaching the explicitness reserved for hetero-consummations.” While these perspectives rightfully expose the issues of representation surrounding Guadagnino’s film, distancing its characters and narrative from gayness, they overlook two considerations vital to appreciating the film and its literary source: first, an older strain of homophilic culture that Call Me By Your Name inherits, and second, the film’s resonance with the currently increasing acknowledgement of male heterosexual fluidity. In these ways, the film and its source novel celebrate the complexities of queer desire while participating in an earlier tradition of gay culture uninvested in fixed notions of a minority gay identity.
Far from being irrelevant to gay culture, the choice of setting in both the book and film resonates with gay literary tradition. The utopic, sun-dappled country backdrop of Guadagnino’s film recalls two classic novels of twentieth-century English gay fiction: E. M. Forster’s Maurice (written in 1913-1914, posthumously published in 1971), adapted for the screen in 1987 (Merchant-Ivory), and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), adapted in 1981 for Granada Television and in 2008 for the screen (directed by Julian Jarrold). Forster saw his novel as evocative of what he termed the “greenwood”—a pastoral haven for the love between men. The narrative concludes with the eponymous character abandoning English society to retreat into the greenwood with his working-class lover. In the Terminal Note for his manuscript, Forster laments that England’s greenwood had already vanished by the time he completed his first version of Maurice:
[Maurice] belongs to an England where it was still possible to get lost. It belongs to the last moment of the greenwood [. . .]. Our greenwood ended catastrophically and inevitably. Two great wars demanded and bequeathed regimentation which the public services adopted and extended, science lent her aid, and the wildness of our island, never extensive, was stamped upon and built over and patrolled in no time. There is no forest or fell to escape to today, no cave in which to curl up, no deserted valley for those who wish neither to reform nor corrupt society but to be left alone. People do still escape, one can see them any night at it in the films.
The desire for such havens as Forster describes would linger in literature. Although written after the Second World War, Waugh’s novel also conjures up various iterations of the greenwood as the picturesque settings for the collegiate love of Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder, who become friends at Oxford and then spend a blissful summer together on the grounds of Brideshead, the country estate of Sebastian’s wealthy Catholic family. Waugh likens their fleeting idyll to a lost Eden or Arcadia, captured in tender scenes of the pair strolling arm-in-arm through the botanical gardens, picnicking in the countryside, and roaming the hot-houses at Brideshead, where Charles “believed [him]self very near heaven, during those languid days.” These are potent images in the homoerotic literary imagination, which Guadagnino’s film recalls as it brings visual life to Aciman’s creation of a new greenwood—just as transient as Forster’s or Waugh’s, and just as lovingly immortalized.
Yet in following this tradition of male homoerotic romance set against a “timeless” background, Call Me By Your Name has come under fire for what some critics perceive as a troublingly apolitical artistic choice. As Ty Mitchell observes:
It offers us a kind of utopia—a utopia of love. It is, however, an unimaginative utopia, because it can only conceptualize fulfillment of same-sex desire by situating it in a social and historical vacuum, a world without identities, without rejection, and without disease. It is a world in which culture, history, or community could not possibly salvage queer desire as worthwhile, only love and its complete reciprocation. It is a love-utopia wherein not only are sexual identities irrelevant, but even personal identities are interchangeable.
By shifting the film from the novel’s 1987 setting to 1983, in an Italy “untouched by the corruption of the ’80s—in the U.S., Reagan, and in the UK, Thatcher,” Guadagnino’s film may well be at odds with current political movements that prioritize social specificities in the attempt to dismantle systemic oppressions. Yet the film and novel are not merely preoccupied with a non-specific vision of love, as Mitchell alleges. The premise of interchangeable personal identities, rather than rendering gayness or queerness irrelevant, stems from another homophilic tradition: the fascination with Classical thought and aesthetics.
The Classical preoccupations of Call Me By Your Name have not been lost on reviewers, who have pointed out that Aristophanes’s discourse on love in Plato’s Symposium (a reference point for gay and queer art from Maurice to Hedwig and the Angry Inch) is a likely inspiration behind Oliver’s titular request that he and Elio call each other by their own names. Aciman’s novel and Guadagnino’s film both tap into a fascination with Classical philosophy, mythology, history, and aesthetics that characterize homophilic art from the nineteenth century through the twentieth. From Oscar Wilde’s descriptions of Lord Alfred Douglas as a Narcissus and Hyacinthus to Pierre et Gilles’ homoerotic multimedia renderings of Ganymede and other mythical figures, Classical imagery has inspired generations of gay and queer artists.
Two major characters in Aciman’s novel are Classical scholars, and Guadagnino emphasizes their objects of study from the outset of his film, as photographs of ancient sculptures fill the screen throughout the opening credits. One memorable image from the movie, used prominently in the trailer and other advertisements, is of Armie Hammer’s Oliver wielding the arm of a decaying sculpture to shake hands with Timothée Chalamet’s Elio. And in the film’s Oscar-nominated theme tune “The Mystery of Love,” Sufjan Stevens’ yearning lyrics name-check Alexander the Great and Hephaistion, whose legendary devotion has sparked homoerotic interpretations by modern scholars. (Indeed, this is not the first time that Stevens’ songs have treaded on queer terrain.)
While Ratskoff rightly likens the Greco-Roman allusions in Call Me By Your Name to those in Maurice, he dismisses them as “ultimately part of a long history of worshipping the masculine form rather than a particularly gay male gaze.” Aestheticizing the masculine form, however, is a function of a putative gay male gaze, in contrast to heteronormative aesthetics that centre and objectify the feminine form while privileging the heterosexual male gaze with the creation of meaning. Of course, if heteronormative patriarchal male culture participates more broadly in the construction of idealized masculine bodies, then this is also true of many facets of gay and queer culture that overlap with the mainstream. See, for instance, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s observation in Epistemology of the Closet that many of the bulwarks of a hypothetical gay canon would coincide with those of the mainstream Western canon: “not only have there been a gay Socrates, Shakespeare, and Proust but [. . .] their names are Socrates, Shakespeare, and Proust.”
Call Me By Your Name thus reflects a queer convergence of homoerotic gazes and desires, untethered by gay, straight, or bisexual labels. Likewise, the film reflects its origins as a collaboration between gay and straight artists. That Aciman, a straight male novelist, and Chalamet and Hammer, two straight male actors, should comfortably identify with and perform queer desires is not, in my view as a gay male scholar and artist, cause for charges of appropriation or the usurpation of rightfully gay roles.
Unlike the whitewashing of characters of colour, their contributions as straight artists participating in queer art mirror the reality that homoerotic desires and experiences have always been available to and sometimes shared by otherwise heterosexually identified men—a fact that has garnered increasing attention from academic studies and cultural analysis.
This phenomenon is hardly a new topic for literature. Like Call Me By Your Name, Brideshead Revisited elegizes homoerotic love without affixing it to a gay label. Just as Aciman’s novel and Guadagnino’s film distinguish Oliver and Elio’s relationship from that of an older, gay-identified couple, so does Waugh’s novel distinguish Sebastien and Charles from the flamboyant Anthony Blanche. Yet Aciman’s text goes a step further in universalizing homoerotic love as something relatable for all men. In the much-discussed monologue by Elio’s presumably straight father near the end of the novel and film, the older man confides that he “may have come close” to experiencing the kind of love that his son has known and lost. His sentiments evoke sadness not for suggesting a life wasted in the closet, but rather a quiet regret for not seizing the fullness of experience while the greenwood was in bloom.
The eschewing of labels is understandably frustrating for proponents of gay rights from what Sedgwick termed a “minoritizing view.” As its detractors have noted, the film is not radical for appealing to gay audiences; however, it is significant for capturing the emotions of straight audiences to a more rapturous extent than earlier mainstream gay films. Call Me By Your Name is not emblematic of wistful gay yearnings for unattainable straight men, but of homoerotic longings experienced universally by men regardless of identity label.
Marc Ducusin holds a PhD in English literature from McGill University, where he wrote his dissertation on representations of gender and sexual deviance in Victorian sensation fiction. In addition to his academic work as a course instructor and writing tutor, he is an avid theatre performer at the community and independent level, and an ACTRA apprentice pursuing work in film and television.