By Devdutt Pattanaik
Every fiction, whether a novel, a play or a film, is a writer’s attempt to reinforce or challenge mythic structures around him. The most dominant mythic structure in the Western world is the biblical one, of Adam and Eve being cast out of Eden, the perfect garden, by Yahweh, God of Abraham, because they succumb to the serpent’s temptation and eat the Forbidden Fruit. It is the Original Sin, an act of transgression. The quest for ‘happily ever after’ in modern retellings of ancient European fairy tales is essentially a yearning to return to that perfect Eden. It is where good children go, the obedient ones, those who either resist the temptation, or those who genuinely regret the transgression.
Nothing is more transgressive in human society than homosexuality: the desire of a man for a man, or a woman for a woman. Imagined for centuries as being against the order of nature, it is considered forbidden not only by God but also by man. This is the dominant myth that most gays and lesbians have to contend with.
And so it is indeed delightful to discover how Luca Guadagnino’s Oscar-nominated Call Me By Your Name, with brilliant use of narrative, visuals and music, reclaims Eden for gay men and women around the world, for everyone in fact – homosexual or heterosexual – who values love over law.
At face value, it is a finely crafted coming-of-age film, set in a villa in a quaint little Italian town one summer, amidst a feast of food, friends, wine, music, dancing, swimming and indolence. The film follows the step-by-step exploration of sensual love (shringara rasa) described in Bharata’s Natyashastra between precocious 17-year old Elio (played by the talented Timothee Chalamet) from an affluent, well-educated and highly cultured American-Italian family, and his father’s 24-year-old American student Oliver (played by the gorgeous Arnie Hammer) from the first meeting to tension, anticipation, realisation, termination and finally reflection. It has been done before, only this time it involves two people of the same sex, a boy and a man.
But then you wonder why the film lingers long after the credits have rolled. Why you feel quietly happy, even uplifted, despite the tragic end. Is it the gently sonorous music of indie-pop artist Sufjan Stevens, so full of love and longing? Is it the fabulous work of Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who successfully creates a dreamy sun-drenched summer experience? Or is it the screenplay by veteran James Ivory, who transforms Andre Aciman’s novel of the same name from being a memoir of an older and more reflective Elio to being an experience located in the present, not just of Elio but also of Oliver, who is excited yet terrified by the force of this forbidden feeling?
Or is it the editing of Walter Fasano who takes you on a high, then abruptly cuts scenes so that the music and the mood lingers in your body even as your eyes relish a new shot? The mythologist in me, however, noticed the metaphors and the symbols, and sensed there was something far more subversive at work – a radical retelling of a myth, where Eden becomes a place of love, where God does not judge, and in fact encourages transgression through education, perhaps because the garden, full of peaches, cherries and apricots, and rivers full of fish, belongs to the Goddess.
Here, God is the boy’s father, Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), an archaeology professor researching sensual male nude sculptures of classical Greece. Perlman enjoys discussing ideas with students, friends, and neighbours at his table over long lunches and dinners. He is not Jehovah or Zeus who demands obedience. He does not mock his son’s exploration of sexuality.; he encourages it. He pays attention to his son’s heartbreak, but is unaffected by its homosexual root. He goes so far as to tell his son that he is envious of his son’s experience, and advises him not to try to cure himself of the pain in a hurry, for that is how people grow emotionally bankrupt before we are 30! It is a father-son scene that is bound to go down in film history, displaying a parenting that most gay men can only dream of.
His wife Annella (Amira Casar) is the Goddess. When Olivier asks the Professor about his orchard, the Professor clarifies that the trees belong to his wife. She has inherited the gorgeous Italian villa where the family spends their summer and Hanukah. Annella is generous and invites everyone to meals, including Chiara, the girl who is smitten by the dashing Oliver, and Marzia, with whom Elio is exploring his sexuality before realising that his body responds very differently and more acutely to Oliver.
Annella does not need words, that ‘futile device’ – the title of one of the musical scores – to convey her unconditional affection for her son and his male lover even after the latter breaks her son’s heart. It is in the way she looks, moves and touches that you feel her benevolent gaze. In fact, it is she who encourages her husband to let their son go on a small trip to Bergamo with Oliver, before Oliver departs forever, fully aware that there is a deeper bond between the two, not just casual friendship.
Annella never probes. She lets her son figure out his own way, ensuring all the time that he is well fed, well educated in classical literature, well sheltered, and never judged. She reads her son French fairy tales and draws his attention to that very potent line, “Is it better to speak or to die?” Speak to whom, we wonder: to the object of our desires, or to our parents, whose love gay children yearn for more than anything else?
Oliver is the intruder in Eden, or “usurper”, as Elio calls him right at the start of the film, because he has been asked to give up his bedroom and share his bathroom with the house guest for six weeks. Oliver’s bluntness and tendency to keep people at a distance, amplified by his way of saying, “Later!” when departing, contrasts with the easy hospitality of his hosts. His restraint is foreshadowed early in the film when he is eating his eggs at breakfast and is asked to take another one by Annella. “No, no, no,” he protests, “I just know myself too well. If I take another, I will just gonna have a third, then a fourth, and then just gonna have to roll myself out of here.”
Later when Elio rather boldly grabs his crotch, the hesitant Oliver pushes him away, once again saying. “No, no, no, no, no. We should go. I know myself. And we have been good. And we have done nothing to be ashamed of. That’s a good thing. I want to be good.”
All through the film, the nervousness typically associated with homosexual desire is expressed only through the otherwise confident and cocky Oliver, in his furtive glances, his constant watching of his back before submitting to a kiss. In contrast is Elio’s father, who admonishes Elio (the only time he does) for being unkind to a gay couple who are guests at dinner. “You call them Sonny and Cher behind their back and you accept gifts from them. The only person it reflects badly on is you.”
Oliver endears himself with his childlike excitement when he dances through the streets at night, his eyes full of joy, revealing the liberating power of love. But in the end, Oliver has to leave, both physically and emotionally. He returns to the world where fathers “cart off to a correction facility” sons who are being true to their feelings. Though he says, “I remember everything” in the final telephonic conversation, he also announces that he is to marry a woman, with whom he has been “on and off”, revealing that his decision is driven by pragmatism, not passion. Incidentally, actor Armie Hammer has been quoted in interviews as saying that his mother has very conservative views on homosexuality and may not see this film, the acclaim notwithstanding.
While Oliver has a memory of loss, Elio has a memory of gain. This memory is captured in the novel on which this film is based. Andre Aciman is not gay, but he understands love and loss deeply, having had to leave his native Egypt during the Suez Crisis and move to Europe and then America on account of his Jewish roots.
Jewishness plays a key role in the story. Elio observes with admiration that Oliver has no hesitation displaying his Star of David gold pendant that hangs around his neck. “We are Jews of discretion,” Elio says, explaining why he does not wear his pendant. Thus the Anti-Semitism of Europe and America (the film takes place in 1983) is placed before an audience that is desperate to deny it. The religious metaphor counters the sexual metaphor. While Oliver is comfortable with his Jewishness, he is not comfortable with his homosexuality. In Elio’s home we see the reverse. Religion takes a back seat but acceptance of love and sexuality is at the forefront. It is Eden, after all.
Thirty-one years ago, in 1987, the screenplay writer of Call Me By Your Name had directed one of the earliest gay movies to have a happy ending. James Ivory’s Maurice, set in Edwardian England and based on the novel by EM Foster, tells the story of a young man’s sexual awakening. Boy meets boy, boys loses boy, and then boy finds another boy. The film’s protagonist is rejected by his upper class boyfriend, Durham (Hugh Grant), who chooses to mainstream himself by marrying a woman and encourages Maurice to do the same. Maurice eventually breaks free from the influence of his privileged but cowardly lover and finds strength in the arms of a working class man.
This Merchant-Ivory production was critically acclaimed as it was released in the midst of the HIV/AIDS crisis, but it remained an art-house film. It was a time when Hollywood could deal with homosexuality only through guilt-inducing movies such as Philadelphia (1993). It was only in 2005 that Hollywood saw its first mainstream gay romance, when Ang Lee spectacularly retold Annie Proulx short story Brokeback Mountain, about two cowboys who live terribly unhappy lives and find real joy only once or twice a year when they meet for a few days at the titular mountain.
The mountain shatters the flat plains and the flatness of their lives. Its gloriously liberating landscape contrasts the claustrophobia and humiliation of their public lives in town. One of the lovers, the more rebellious Jack (Jake Gyllenhall), is killed brutally in what is clearly a hate crime, but his wife (Anne Hathway) insists he died when “the tyre burst”. The survivor, the more macho, the more terrified Ennis (Heath Ledger) is not allowed to take his lover’s ashes to their mountain of love. He has to be content with the bloodied shirt, which he hangs in his shrine-like closet, enveloped and protected by his old denim jacket. This much-admired film did not win the Best Picture Oscar, shocking many. Despite firm denials, most people saw this as an expression of institutional homophobia.
In 2015, the establishment refused to even consider Carol for Best Picture, despite critical acclaim. Some argued that Todd Haynes’s film was too slow for the American academy. But for the LGBTQ community, it was clear the academy could not handle a lesbian story, which unlike Brokeback Mountain, did not even have the decency to grant the story of same-sex lovers a tragic ending. Here the beautiful and sophisticated Carol (Cate Blanchett) finds through love the courage to be true to her feelings, even if it means leaving behind her heartbroken and angry husband and being denied the rights to visit her daughter.
It was only in 2016 that Hollywood redeemed itself when it gave Best Picture Oscar to Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, the story of a gay black man told in three acts, as a child who is bullied, a teenager who is bullied, and an adult who tries to hide his true feelings behind an exaggerated masculine exterior created to protect himself from a world that finds pleasure in bullying gay people. The film’s title is derived from the play on which it is based: In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. The title is a metaphor for hidden truth, like the tenderness and homosexuality of the protagonist eclipsed in a world of poverty, drugs, and toxic masculinity.
Water plays an important role in Moonlight as it does in Call Me By Your Name. It enables baptism, marking transformations. It is the sea for Chiron of Moonlight, and it stands for fear to be overcome. It is thirst-quenching rivers and streams for Elio and Oliver in Call Me By Your Name, around which, in which, through which, love is discovered.
In Moonlight, the sex was furtive, the sexuality hidden, as nervous as the protagonist in the film. Not in Call Me By Your Name, where the body and intimacy are abashedly explored, though not to the pornographic levels one finds in the otherwise brilliant Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), which charts the lesbian love of a French teenager for a painter from her high school years to her early adult life and career. But the French are known to be more revolutionary than the American, more political, more comfortable with the body. Perhaps that is why, though Call Me By Your Name involves Americans, the love blossoms on European soil, in Italian countryside, home of Roman gods and the Church, more suitable as Eden than America’s mountains or moonlight.
Director Luca Guadagnino unashamedly celebrates the beauty of his male protagonists, both of whom are straight. How did he get them be so effortlessly gay on camera, he is asked repeatedly in interviews. Luca went out of the way to put the two actors on the sets at ease, so that they were not self-conscious about their beauty (“They were in shorts, practically naked, almost all the time”) or about intimacy (“We were made to kiss and kiss and kiss, only to realize the cameras had long since stopped rolling”), and the result shows. The intense chemistry between Elio and Oliver leaps out of the film, and reaches deep into our bodies. It stirs memories of our first love, be it homosexual or heterosexual.
Luca is a sensual filmmaker. It is evident in his I Am Love (2009), in which the spectacular Tilda Swinton plays a Russian immigrant and the daughter-in-law of a rich Italian family through changing times and fortunes, and how she is liberated by the forces of passion when she falls in love with a chef who is her son’s friend. In this film too, you can feel the colours, taste the food, and be swept away by the music. Through the senses, the heart is forced to open up and the mind is asked to give up.
It almost seems the director is a student of Bharata’s Natyashastra, the fifth Veda, where sensations and emotions are the levers used for expanding the mind and leading one to wisdom. But while I Am Love is about liberating oneself from conformity, a classic Western hero’s journey, in Call Me By Your Name, there is no opposition, no enemy, no obstacle. This is perhaps the first gay film where being gay is not a problem. The only problem is in the mind of the intruder, who eventually leaves Eden.
Even in Andrew Haigh’s intimate and intense, documentary-like independent gay film Weekend, (2011), sincerity triumphs over cynicism, and our heart is shattered when lovers part. But in Call Me By Your Name you don’t feel sad. You feel elevated. The lyrics of indie-pop musician Sufjan Stevens reinforce this idea. In his song Mystery of Love, a reference is made to Alexander’s male lover Hephastion, and so to the Greek appreciation of man-boy love. The blossoming of love is captured in the lines, “Too see without my eyes, the first time you kissed me.” And in the final song Visions of Gideon we hear of its demise, “I have loved you for the last time. Is it a video? Is it a video? I have touched you for the last time. Is it a video? Is it a video?”
Video here refers to the vision of Gideon, the Biblical hero who charges into war after a vision from God. Elio is Gideon. Elio’s memory of the summer fling is the vision, the video, that comes from God himself. God of the Bible may have refused to reveal his name to the prophet Moses by simply identifying himself as “I am what I am”. But in Call Me By Your Name, lovers express their love, their immersion into each other, by referring to the beloved by the lover’s name.
Elio is Oliver. Oliver is Elio. This vision grants Elio the confidence to face life, even at the risk of heartbreak. As the song plays through the credits, we witness Elio’s transformation presented remarkably over several minutes through Timothy’s spectacular expressions as he stares into the fireplace. The whole film’s dreamy nostalgic quality is a video, a vision, for us to stir up memories of our first love, and our first heartbreak.
Perhaps the most obvious biblical reference comes the now famous peach scene, shortly after Elio and Oliver first have sex. Tormented by desire, Elio makes a hole in a peach and ejaculates into it, and breaks down – unable to bear the intensity of the love – when Oliver jokingly threatens to eat the semen-filled fruit. This is what love does. It removes conventional notions of awkwardness and embarrassment and allows you to express desire in the most absurd forms, and admires you for it.
The fruit here is the Forbidden Fruit. Unlike the biblical myth, the fruit does not ”fuck” the happiness of humanity; it is literally “fucked” for the happiness of humanity. And it is in this scene that you realise that the mythic metaphors are not accidental, or coincidence. It is deliberate. A determination of a culture to reject its mythic framework, or rather modify it. It is not the prodigal sons who is being asked to return home. It is the old-bearded jealous God who becomes kinder, more generous, perhaps because he lets the affectionate Goddess by his side.