Not All Queer Love Stories Are Called Universal

Call Me by Your Name is being hailed as a groundbreaking entry into the queer film canon. But like Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight before it, the movie achieves "universal" appeal largely through the drama of masculinity. Warning: spoilers.

Since its appearance at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Call Me by Your Name has been getting major attention and awards show buzz. Luca Guadagnino’s film about a 17-year-old boy’s summer romance with a 24-year-old male graduate student in a bucolic Italian village in the 1980s, based on André Aciman’s widely praised 2007 novel, has received almost universal rave reviews and quickly attained “landmark” cinema status.

Like two other relatively recent prestige films that emerged from the festival circuit to become cultural phenomena — 2005’s Brokeback Mountain and 2016’s MoonlightCall Me by Your Name is being framed by the press as not just a queer film but a universal story. According to a Rolling Stone review, which called it the “sexiest” film of the year, the emotions Call My by Your Name invokes “matter to all of us, regardless of sexual orientation, when we're gutted for the first time by that thing called love.”

Some critics have since claimed that the film owes its transcendence to a kind of sexual respectability by avoiding explicit queer sex, especially noticeable given the graphic sex scenes in Guadagnino’s previous work. A Twitter backlash also emerged in response to a movie poster featuring Timothée Chalamet's character Elio sitting next to a female friend he briefly dates in the film, which was seen as an attempt to market the film as a straight romance. Guadagnino himself suggested that the characters’ sexual identities are fluid and not easily pinned down. (“I don’t think Elio is necessarily going to become a gay man,” he said. “He hasn’t found his place yet.”) Many have celebrated this fluidity as a sign of bisexual acceptance.

But in some ways, the prevailing critical focus on the film’s approach to sexuality has obscured an equally (if not more) important question: the role that gender — or, more specifically, masculinity — plays in the film. There is now a thematic pattern emerging that connects many (although not all) of the “prestige” queer films that break out of indie circuits and reach the top tier of mainstream recognition: They tell stories about queerness through the lens of masculine emotion. They are each different in many ways, not least in their attention to class or race, but they are all narratives about the difficulty or impossibility of love between men who just happen to desire other men.

These movies make male intimacies central, including those between fathers and sons, while women characters largely recede into the background. And any hint of gay femininity or gender dissidence is generally erased, coded, or relegated to minor characters. This economy structures not just the movies’ plots, but also the way that the films’ straight actors earn major plaudits — and cachet — for “playing gay.”

These films’ depictions of masculine men expressing emotion pave the way for mainstream audiences to interpret a narrative that might otherwise be considered melodrama as serious tragedy — and a “gay” romance as a universal meditation on love. These movies might be framed as love stories, like Brokeback Mountain, or coming-of-age stories, like Moonlight, or both, like Call Me by Your Name. And some might face other serious obstacles to qualifying as universal in the eyes of the mainstream, as Moonlight certainly did in a cinematic landscape still dominated by white perspectives. But they all participate, to varying degrees, in a version of what might be called — drawing from debates about the devaluation of gay male femininity — “masc-centrism”: a perspective in which same-sex desire is largely separated from any kind of gender nonconformity, while centralizing conventional masculinity.

This is not necessarily an intentional or calculated strategy, and has nothing to do with the artistic merits of these films, which are all compelling and well-crafted. Rather, it is a question of how they are talked about and what they come to represent. It’s important to interrogate why these films in particular achieve a so-called universal appeal, and what kind of alternative visions or values might be left out of that celebration.

Brokeback Mountain, in 2005, was perhaps the first film to go from festival circuit darling — nabbing top prize at Venice Film Festival — to cultural blockbuster and Oscar winner by framing queerness within a tragic love story between two straight-passing men: the now-famous couple of rodeo cowboy Jack Twist (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and ranch hand Ennis Del Mar (played by Heath Ledger).

The film, adapted from Annie Proulx’s short story of the same name, filters its drama of impossible love through the masculinist heroics of the Western. That combination was no small part of what drew attention to what was dubbed the “gay cowboy movie.” Jack and Ennis come together through the happenstance of their jobs — consummating silent attraction in a scene of sudden, explosive sexuality when Ennis fucks Jack — but ultimately their marriages, and Ennis’s financial difficulties, make it impossible for them to be together.

The most resonant lines and scenes in Brokeback traded on the supposed dissonance between stoic masculinity and deep emotion. The now-famous line delivered by Jack to Ennis, “I wish I knew how to quit you,” became a proto-meme because of the unique spectacle of this hypermasculine pair engaging in a kind of romantic melodrama that's often coded as inherently feminine. And as with many of these films, the final climactic moment, deferred till the end, features Ennis — the less expressive of the two — finally emoting. That scene of Ennis with tears streaming down his face, mourning Jack who has taught him to love, leaves audiences mourning the queer suffering caused by the closet of masculinity, in what becomes a recurring pattern for these films.

Both the film’s promotion and some of its reception emphasized its universality as a love story. “Love Is a Force of Nature,” read the promotional poster, with Ledger and Gyllenhaal in profile, visually hinting at the film’s masculine homoerotics and framing the characters’ intimacy in terms of masculine forcefulness. (Director Ang Lee, who won an Oscar for Best Director, even instructed the two actors to be a bit violent while shooting, to create “the most Western-heroic kiss.”) The Los Angeles Times described the film as “a deeply felt, emotional love story that deals with the uncharted, mysterious ways of the human heart just as so many mainstream films have before it. The two lovers here just happen to be men.” The calculated casualness of that formulation hints at the way that masculinity, so long the default perspective and focus of most cinematic narratives, is what enables the elevation of a movie about same-sex desire to mainstream “love story” appeal.

Much like with Call Me by Your Name, which has been presented as a love affair between Guadagnino and his straight actors, the Brokeback production itself was depicted as a love story in magazine articles. Ledger and Gyllenhaal were celebrated for their bravery in daring to play gay; Ledger told the press he had been harassed on the street for his role, and a cult emerged around him based on his gayness by proxy. Gyllenhaal recently framed the role as a boundary-expanding journey: “It was an intimate and really scary thing for me and Heath, in particular, to dive into,” he told Variety. “It was uncomfortable for both of us in some of the scenes.” He added in another interview that “it was an interesting journey to go on to learn about that world.”

The way our culture celebrates straight actors journeying into same-sex desire, expanding the bonds of masculine intimacy, obscures the complicated and gendered politics of casting. Because these male characters only depart from traditional narratives of desire in their own desire for other men (rather than embodying other potential aspects of queerness, like gender nonconformity) the production can cast straight-presenting, conventionally attractive actors with the widest possible appeal. The films’ straight actors are celebrated for their transgressive daring. Meanwhile, their pioneering contemporaries who are queer and out, especially those typecast in femme roles, have trouble getting cast in the first place.

Even gay male critics dismissed the role of Brokeback Mountain’s masc-centrism in its reception. In the New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn argued that the film was ultimately about the closet, and “tells a distinctively gay story that happens to be so well told that any feeling person can be moved by it.” Yet the emphasis on Brokeback’s aesthetic quality as an explanation — implying that other queer films don’t transcend simply because they’re not as well-made — overlooks the way the film also presented the closet as a kind of universal, emotional closet of stoic masculinity. And this was also one of the (many) reasons for the resonance of 2016’s universally acclaimed Moonlight.

If Brokeback Mountain achieved mainstream appeal thanks to a “universal” tragic love story, Moonlight was framed as a transcendent coming-of-age story. The film’s promotional poster emphasizes that narrative — “The Story of a Lifetime,” “A Breathtaking Coming of Age Story” — and includes a picture meshing child, teen, and adult Chiron (played by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes).

Unlike Brokeback, Moonlight was, to its credit, an intersectional story about race, class, and sexuality. It is also a thoughtful exploration of the way stoic masculinity gets constructed, arguably as a defense against a white, heteronormative world in which black men in particular have to deal with racial stereotypes that are also gendered. And the movie’s portraits of women — particularly Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris), struggling with addiction — are more developed.

But it's also ultimately a tale of Chiron's estrangement from and quietly powerful attempt to reconnect with his feelings. Some of the most resonant scenes in Moonlight that explore vulnerability and intimacy occur between Chiron and his older male mentor, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who acts as a father figure, in a revalorization of black fatherhood and masculinity — for instance, the moment when Juan gently holds Chiron in the ocean to teach him to swim, and to trust.

The coming-of-age story is also about the difficult intimacy between Chiron and his schoolmate Kevin, a charismatic, confident ladies’ man. A scene at the beach where they kiss and Kevin masturbates Chiron (men finding intimacy only in benign nature is a recurring theme throughout these films) is followed by Kevin’s peer-mandated beating of Chiron to prove his manliness. Audiences — by design — are left to fill in many blanks between the three acts of Little/Chiron/Black’s story. When we meet Chiron as a massively muscled adult, he has taken on a hypermasculine persona.

The queer black playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the unproduced and unfinished play that director Barry Jenkins turned into the film script, has been candid about his own femme identity. But Chiron’s “difference” as a boy and teen in the movie is mostly represented as a kind of universal bookishness or shyness. That bookishness may mark Chiron as unmasculine to his peers, who bully him. But he doesn’t display any other visible markers of gay male femininity (such as the ballet shoes McCraney talked about wearing as a boy) and that allows continuity with the grown-up Chiron. One can contrast the coyness of those childhood scenes with the excitement generated by the ongoing storyline of a boy with a doll on the television show Queen Sugar.

Importantly, Trevante Rhodes, who plays adult Chiron, didn’t meet the playwright until after filming, and based his portrayal of masculinity on a closeted friend. While addressing questions about the difficulty of “playing gay,” he noted the way that performances of masculinity are what makes straight and gay men alike: “I was born loving women, but I could have just as easily been born loving men and … I would have been the same exact person, behaving the same exact way.”

Moonlight culminates with a Brokeback-style scene encouraging us to identify and sympathize with Chiron’s masculine stoicism — much like Ennis Del Mar’s. As an adult, Chiron meets with Kevin again, who nurturingly prepares him dinner. Chiron confesses his yearning to Kevin. “You’re the only man that’s ever touched me,” he says, in a clip carefully curated by many on YouTube. “You’re the only one.”

In this way, the film’s arc ends with him stepping out of the stoic masculinity closet as he and Kevin bond over his vulnerability — despite the lack of a kiss, the intimacy is palpable and electrifying — and the ultimate takeaway is that Chiron has begun to access his own emotions and figure out his desires. As director Jenkins explained, he is now “okay with allowing himself to want and desire these things,” but, he added, “I think that these two men don’t fall into this happily-ever-after relationship, in any way. I don’t think Chiron is now extremely comfortable with his sexuality, and I don’t think he’s ready for even just a night of physical intimacy.”

Moonlight was groundbreaking in many ways; it expanded the cinematic conversation about queer love beyond whiteness, and broke through in an industry dominated by white voices. Ali won an Academy Award for his role, Rhodes’ performance of vulnerability helped make him a budding star and sex symbol, and the film took home Oscars for both Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. But it’s hard not to imagine that it was in part the way Moonlight centers masculinity that helped the film and its actors transcend niche status.

That level of recognition hasn’t usually been granted to other black queer filmmakers and projects that don’t adhere to the same kinds of gendered scripts. For example, Dee Rees's Pariah, a critically acclaimed coming-of-age story about lesbianism that’s more candid about gender dissidence, didn’t transcend indie circuits. The ongoing work of filmmaker and television creator Patrik-Ian Polk, who represents black masculinity from a gender-dissident, femme perspective — from his first film, Punks, to Blackbird to his groundbreaking show Noah’s Arc — has met a similar fate. Their work is rarely described as universal, and their actors haven’t become Hollywood stars.

Call Me by Your Name’s actors, however, were getting a lot of attention even before the film’s release. One widely circulated meme involving a scene of Armie Hammer’s character Oliver “dad dancing” went viral among a growing fan base enamored with the novel and hungry for the film. That scene’s larger resonance — the fascination with Hammer’s un-self-conscious, “badly” butch dancing — is telling in the way it encapsulates how viewers are expected to identify, in the film, with Elio’s adoration of Oliver's masculine beauty.

Oliver is a visiting scholar studying with Elio’s dad; the fact that they are classics scholars, and the film is full of images of Greek statues of beautiful men, evokes those high-cultural models of maleness. Oliver is shown effortlessly moving through homosocial settings like a men’s bar and the family’s Italian villa in ways that seem alien to Elio, despite the fact that Elio actually lives there. Oliver is so comfortable with himself, so glamorously tall, fit, and self-confident, that he’s nicknamed the “movie star” by Elio’s family.

Not unlike in Moonlight, Elio’s contrasting alienation is portrayed as a kind of precocious, diary-writing introversion, though also an endearingly neurotic self-consciousness. Thus he is fascinated by — and resentful of — the careless ease with which Oliver moves through the world. Their age difference is also a factor in their gender difference; Oliver’s adult, hairy-chested butchness versus Elio’s hairless twinkishness.

They engage in a metaphorical dance as Elio in some ways tries to match Oliver’s affect, acting like an annoyed, aloof teen. The dancing meme comes from a moment when Elio gazes at Oliver dancing with Chiara (Victoire Du Bois), one of the background women characters, who is simply there to confirm their sexual fluidity and keep them apart in their homosocial triangle. Even the song Oliver dances to — which he loves and comes up again in the film — is the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” part of a post-punk tradition of androgyny (they also sang “Pretty in Pink”) that is less about celebrating femininity than it is about the cultural cachet of straight men who are “man” enough to be girly. The fact that stans of the film over-dubbed the scene with diva anthems like Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” might be understood as a playful critique of the film’s insistently self-serious masculinism.

When Oliver and Elio directly interact with each other, as in a memorable scene where they circle a fountain, much of their dialogue and action is about the dance of impossibility that also seems to afflict the characters in movies like Brokeback and Moonlight. As Richard Brody’s New Yorker review pointed out, the characters — and their circular, intentionally vague conversations — leave them almost as ciphers, allowing for plenty of audience projection. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” Oliver asks, and they seem to reach an understanding.

Much has been made of the fact that when Elio and Oliver finally have sex in Oliver’s room, the camera pans from the bed to a tree outside the window. (Guadagnino explained that he preferred not to include explicit sex to make the film feel more universal.) But it is part of these films’ tradition that the innocence of nature acts as a kind of backdrop or metaphor to naturalize men’s love outside societal strictures. Even the infamous peach scene — in which Elio uses the fruit to masturbate, and Oliver mimes eating it — participates in that kind of idealization. And the most prolonged, uninterrupted interaction between them occurs during a weekend trip that plays out, as with Brokeback and Moonlight, amid bucolic scenes of nature and waterfalls.

But much is left unsaid between the characters, even after their goodbye. And it is Elio’s dad’s speech to him about remaining open to love, a father instructing a son to connect with and embrace his emotions, that helps him deal with Oliver’s departure. In their final telephone conversation, so much that had been tacit is finally made concrete, especially about the specter of the closet for Oliver: He announces he is getting married and expresses his jealousy over Elio’s liberal parents. (In fact, the only “queeny” characters in the film — whom Elio dismisses as Sonny and Cher, one of whom is played by the novel’s straight author — are there to help illustrate Elio’s parents’ sophistication about sexuality.)

The film ends with a shot of Elio’s tears after their conversation. But his and the audience’s sadness over this first heartbreak is also, in large part, sadness over Oliver being seemingly relegated to the closet. Elio ultimately smiles through his tears, as a haunting Sufjan Stevens song plays. The music throughout the film is significant; a song that plays twice in the world of the characters is the 1980s Europop hit “Words Don’t Come Easy,” which presents one of the major themes of the film: the difficulty of the protagonists’ communication, in part because of the closet and in part because of Oliver’s masculinity.

There seems little doubt that Elio and Oliver will soon to take their place in the canon of doomed or difficult but beautifully watchable couples, alongside Ennis and Jack and Chiron and Kevin. These are couples embraced, in part, for the way they learn through each other to express their feelings, despite their masculine armor — and played by actors celebrated for reaching beyond their own straightness. Elio’s dad’s monologue is already circulating like a kind of Hallmark card, a universal statement about a father’s acceptance and embracing passion, and the actor, Michael Stuhlbarg, is being pushed for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Hammer, like Ledger and Gyllenhaal, has framed his experience working on the film as a transformative journey into vulnerability, and is a potential Oscar contender. Chalamet has gotten rave reviews for his performance and this week was crowned Best Actor by the New York Film Critics Circle.

When Guadagnino was asked about casting openly gay actors, he revealingly made the question — through his defensive answer — one about gender expression rather than sexuality. “So I couldn’t have ever thought of casting with any sort of gender agenda,” he explained. “I think people are so beautiful and complex as creatures that as much as I am fascinated with gender theory — I’ve studied [American gender theorist] Judith Butler for so long — I prefer much more never to investigate or label my performers in any way. I only cast the actors and actresses I fall in love with — truly having an emotion for them, an anticipation and enthusiasm when seeing them — and I believe that my emotional confidence in them blends into chemistry.”

His comments come during a moment when openly gay stars like Matt Bomer (who was considered and ultimately turned down for films like Superman and 50 Shades of Grey) still face difficulty getting cast as romantic leads, even when they’re conventionally masculine. Supposed gender-blind casting raises questions about when and how things will change as long as the same kinds of stories and characters — and actors — keep getting elevated and universalized.

The concept of universality is deeply political, because it helps determine what a culture pays attention to — and what remains invisible. But the kinds of queer pain and love deemed transcendent or even transformative for audiences in these recent films keep circling back to the same themes and characters. This year, the British film God’s Own Country, for example, follows similar patterns; it’s a Brokeback-style tale about an aggressively masculine sheep farmer in the north of England who learns to be emotionally vulnerable through a romance with a visiting migrant worker. And it has been described as a “heartfelt romance” and “a universal tale about giving yourself over to love, even when you seem hopelessly broken.”

In contrast, this year’s highly praised French film BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a story that could be described as being about the complexities of love, writ large — in terms of romance, friendship, political comradeship — and features characters across a range of ethnicities and forms of gender expression. But BPM is still ultimately being received as a niche “AIDS film.” Paradoxically, perhaps because it’s not just about private romance, and it follows but doesn’t limit itself to the story of one male couple, the film’s representations of queer pain and feeling may seem too specific for mainstream audiences.

There are infinite ways of seeing, approaching, or celebrating queerness, and the many ways it intersects with race, class, gender, and society. A film like Moonlight is a brilliant example of some of those intersections. But perhaps naming the subgenre of acclaimed masc melodramas, which Call Me by Your Name is now joining, as just that — as studies of masculine emotion — can be a reminder of how narrowly gendered the current claims to universality still are. ●


The female character Oliver dances with in Call Me By Your Name is Chiara; a previous version of this article misstated the name of the character.

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