By Elizabeth Murphy
I’m staring at a still from the now-in-theaters Call Me By Your Name and thinking about a passage in Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home. The still is of leads Timothée Chamalet and Armie Hammer, both shirtless, Timothée looking impossibly small as Armie massages his shoulders from behind. It’s hard to believe that Timothée is, in actuality, 21, playing a 17-year-old – he looks like he could be 12. Armie, in reality 30, is playing 24, which is, I guess, believable in the brightened after effects of the film and with every trace of stubble erased from his chin.
The passage in Fun Home is this: Alison is parsing her father’s proclivity for underaged men, particularly the students of his high school English class. She draws back to Proust, beloved French author, and links him to her father through their aberrant “pansy” nature, gesturing to an academic lineage of pedophilia stretching all the way back to Socrates. It’s disgusting and beautiful all at once, allowing for a dual portrait of both men that acknowledges their life’s work, their oppressed identity, and their guilt.
I confess that I will most likely pay for a ticket to see Call Me By Your Name, and I will probably enjoy it. LGBT reviewers such as Ira Madison III and Barry Jenkins are insistent upon its beauty, the mastery of the performances, the wholeness of the project. It is a film depicting the lives of gay men that does not involve one partner dying of AIDS or being the victim of a hate crime. Instead, the narrative finds its emotional thrust in the loneliness of queer discovery. The hesitancy of confronting that unspoken, aberrant desire does not need to be fraught with life or death stakes in order to maintain its power. I marvel at the fact that an indie LGBT film of such a quiet, personal nature was so well-funded and produced and now is being heralded as a mainstream success.
Yet I can’t help but feel incredibly unsettled all the same, and none of the excuses I keep getting have helped me feel grounded in this conversation. Again and again, the argument follows that it isn’t a love story, that the relationship between Elio and Oliver is not even the core focus of the film – and, truly, I want to say, how could it be when the author of the original novel is a straight man? I am told: the art is not glorifying the relationship; the age of consent in Italy is lower than seventeen; I am taking away teen agency; it is not *technically* pedophilia, and that is all that should matter. There is a breaking point for me in remembering that this is how the world works anyways, is it not? This film is not an aberration but a continuation. Can it really hold trauma anymore if again and again we are confronted with this story, in Blue Is the Warmest Color, in Loving Annabelle, in Mädchen in Uniform, Zeus and Ganymedes?
Lori Maddox was 15 when she lost her virginity with David Bowie in the early 1970s, Bowie well into adulthood at the time but clinging to youth through his rockstar persona. Maddox recalls the event fondly, and we as a culture seem to recall Bowie fondly as well. Louis C.K.’s final film before his sexual assault allegations outstripped all else about him depicted a blossoming relationship between a 17-year-old girl and a 68-year-old man. It is not fair that LGBT relationships should face a higher scrutiny than straight relationships depicted in the media. It is revolting that Kevin Spacey is allowed to fold his coming out into his admission to having preyed upon teenage boys, embodying the contradiction of art and artist and punishment and praise. I hold Call Me By Your Name at an arm’s length. I do not yet know how to reconcile what it means with what it is. I might not ever.