I’ve been thinking about one of the main criticisms that has crept in under the rapturous—over-rapturous, if you ask me—praise for Luca Guadagnino’s movie adaptation of Call Me by Your Name, which is that it shyly looks away from all the gay fucking. After all, it’s a famously sexy book. “This novel is hot,” as Stacey D’Erasmo’s book review memorably began. But in retrospect, though I love the novel, it’s studiously euphemistic in many places: compared to all the detailed cocks and “little stoppered farts” of a Hollinghurst novel, say, Call Me often has a rather pre-lib sensibility about the facts and mechanics of gay sex, something more in common with a mid-century author like Mary Renault than with post-seventies gay literature. This isn’t always the case; Aciman occasionally does describe the mechanics of getting fingered in the butt, but many of the book’s sexiest bits are in fact gauzy and lovely rather than rough and raw, even if they do not, as Guadagnino version does, literally pan away from the lovers to the softly rustling trees.
Here, for instance, is the core description of the first time in which Oliver and Elio fuck:
[…] At some point I realized he’d been naked for a long while, though I hadn’t noticed him undress, but there he was, not a part of him that wasn’t touching me. Where had I been? I’d been meaning to ask the tactful health question, but that too seemed to have been answered a while ago, because when I finally did find the courage to ask him, he replied, “I already told you, I’m okay.” “Did I tell you I was okay too?” “Yes.” He smiled. I looked away, because he was staring at me, and I knew I was flushed, and I knew I’d made a face, though I still wanted him to stare at me even if it embarrassed me, and I wanted to keep staring at him too as we settled into our mock wrestling position, his shoulders rubbing by knees. How far we had come from the afternoon when I’d taken off my underwear and put on his bathing suit and thought this was the closest his body would ever come to mine. Now this. I was on the cusp of something, but I also wanted it to last forever, because I knew there’d be no coming back from this. When it happened, it happened not as I’d dreamed it would, but with a degree of discomfort that forced me to reveal more of myself than I cared to reveal. I had an impulse to stop him, and when he noticed, he did ask, but I did not answer, or didn’t know what to answer, and an eternity seemed to pass between my reluctance to make up my mind and his instinct to make it up for me.
Now, I’m going to be very crass and do some translating, because I think it draws into focus just how elliptical this description really is. Oliver and Elio are in bed together. Oliver has already undressed Elio just prior to the excerpted passage. Elio is so overcome in the moment that he doesn’t really realize that Oliver has stripped too, until he does. “[N]ot a part of him that wasn’t touching me.” That’s a dick, surely. Then “the tactful health question.” Another minor criticism of the movie is that it doesn’t talk about HIV/AIDS, though it’s set right at the panicked beginning of the epidemic, but here, in the novel, Elio does ask. The tactful question is probably something along the lines of, “Are you clean?” (A lousy euphemism itself, derogatory-by-insinuation, but people still ask it even in our less panicked, supposedly more enlightened moment.)
After that, a “mock wrestling position, his shoulders rubbing my knees.” Reader, that’s a sixty-nine if I ever heard one. And then, “it happened” with “a degree of discomfort that forced me to reveal more of myself than I cared to reveal.” That is to say, Oliver starts to put his dick in Elio’s ass; it hurts more than Elio expected; Elio hesitates and quails a bit; Oliver senses it and asks if he should stop; Elio doesn’t answer; Oliver doesn’t stop. By the way, between the tactful question and the swift movement to “when it happened,” the strong implication is that they are having bareback sex.
This kind of clinical detail can make for good sex writing (Hollinghurst) and bad sex writing (Bill O’Reilly), so I don’t want to imply any sort of inherent moral or aesthetic value to either its presence or its absence, but I do think that its absence in the text is interesting. The mind races ahead of the exact content of the words and fills in the blanks. Elio’s dreams of this moment have been—with one very notable exception—dreams of submission; he at one point imagines wrapping his legs around Oliver “like a woman.” (I am obliged to say that there’s nothing inherently submissive about the receptive position in sexual intercourse, but that’s very plainly Elio’s sense of the image.) So we read the passage and fill in the details: he is on his back on the bed, and Oliver is on top of him and inside of him.
The film is shier yet; it really does look away with a sort of Hays Code demureness, and that is part of the critique, because earlier in the movie, it somewhat (though really only somewhat) more explicitly shows Elio having sex with a woman. I notice, though, that it isn’t all that different in the book:
There was nothing between our bodies but our clothes, which was why I was not caught by surprise when she slipped a hand between us and down into my trousers, and said, “Sei duro, duro, you’re so hard.” And it was her frankness, unfettered and unstrained, that made me harder yet now.
It’s not Penthouse Forum, but it’s not a “mock wrestling position” either.
The actual erotic heart of the novel consists of the pair’s trip to Rome, in which their relationship reaches a pitch of increasingly erotic desperation (including a scene of what I will gingerly call sensual defecation that seemed to confound certain book reviewers) driven by the fact that the trip marks the end of Oliver’s stay in Italy and their therefore inevitable impending separation. The movie elides most of this episode and sets it elsewhere—to me, a much more unusual and questionable choice than replacing anal sex with an image of summer foliage. Nevertheless, I think the criticism of the movie for its delicate treatment of the young men’s first lovemaking is unfair: the movie is truer in spirit to Aciman’s original text than the criticism suggests.
The movie does have other problems than these, though. The script is uneven, and where it draws dialogue directly from the book, it stumbles. “Look, we can’t talk about such things. We really can’t.” What sounds poetic on a page in a context of slowly unspooling Proustian recollection sounds, in the mouth of the game but miscast Arnie Hammer, merely weird, choked out in the husky tones of a Merchant-Ivory flick. (By the way, you do know who wrote the screenplay…) Elio’s father, in the book a caring but also distant and intimidating figure, “the great man,” who does not like to be corrected, is in the movie rendered as a sort of ingenious gnome, skipping and smiling. The physical chemistry between Chalamet and Hammer is itself all wrong—nothing about them yearns, and while Chalamet’s final scene is a masterpiece of physical acting, I cannot help but think that casting these two straight boys was finally a mistake. I am not for sexual typecasting, but I wonder if any twenty-something straight guy can really know—and therefore replicate—what it feels like to be a teenage boy in the flush of realizing that a man like you wants you as well: the dread and anticipation it engenders within you, the reckless hope that if you sit near enough your knees may “accidentally” touch. This is what Aciman’s oblique and elusive prose manages, even as it too occasionally looks to the trees: it remembers what it all felt like. The film does not.