Queer Cinema: Hegemonic Negotiation of Repressive Dominant Ideologies in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Since the turn of the 21st century, Hollywood has seen a growing number of queer narratives being produced and marketed to mass audiences. Although these representations are being made, they are still few in comparison to the amount of films that portray the ideals and values that can be considered the dominant ideologies of American culture. That is to say, films that are made largely for individuals who fall within the heterosexual, white, Judeo-Christian, and male populations of American citizens. According to Antonio Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony, these ruling forces of influence “must be won and re-won” through a constant “negotiation with subcultural artifacts [such as film], ideas, and/or social movements” that oppose them.[1] So what makes hegemonic negotiation relevant to contemporary queer cinema? Harry Benshoff believes there can be two approaches toward hegemonic negotiation. In this case, it means that even though queer stories are breaking through to mainstream audiences, their content remains partial to the overarching heterosexual ideologies. However, in a more optimistic stance that this paper will take, it also means that because queer films are becoming more and more popular, “social change is possible as [the] dominant ideologies are challenged or opposed.”[2]

There are many instances throughout Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, where spectators can see the hegemonic negotiation between dominant American ideologies and oppositional ideologies taking place. These ongoing negotiations within the film are portrayed through the two main characters, Elio and Oliver, as they are allowed to fall in love and explore their sexuality without negative social repercussions. This oasis-like environment that Elio and Oliver find themselves in is virtually free of the homophobic and repressive forces that are driven by the dominant ideologies of American culture. Although the dominant ideology within American culture currently remains largely in favor of the Judeo-Christian heterosexual white male, the film Call Me by Your Name marks an important shift in the hegemonic negotiation of these ideals within queer cinema. And so, because this film presents its characters in an environment that is open to differing ideas, values, religions, languages and sexual orientations, as well as being primarily oppositional to dominant ideologies, Call Me by Your Name should be considered both an ideologically and culturally significant contribution to contemporary queer cinema.

From the very beginning of Call Me by Your Name, it is clear that the narrative will involve two white males; an aspect of the film that remains inside the boundaries of the dominant ideology. Seventeen-year-old Elio Perlman looks out of the window to see the arrival of Oliver, a handsome and masculine graduate student who will be staying with Elio and his family for the summer. However, this “dominant representation” of a masculine white male soon becomes challenged by oppositional ideologies.[3] For instance, in the beginning, a superimposed text comes onto the screen that states “Somewhere in Northern Italy” and “1983”. Although we are given a specific time period, the indication of an unknown location in Italy immediately gives the film a fairy-tale like quality. In the following minutes, Mr. Perlman, without fully knowing Oliver, tells him that “our home is your home” as Elio leads him up the stairs to show him his room.[4] From this interaction, there is almost an immediate impression that the Perlman parents are warm, welcoming, and open-minded individuals— an indication that their household operates safely outside the norm of what can be considered traditional conservative ideologies.

This notion is additionally carried out in later scenes. For instance, when Elio takes Oliver to show him around the surrounding town. Sitting in the sun outside a café, Elio explains to Oliver that the Perlman’s are a multicultural and multilingual family; they are “English, French, Italian” and are practicing Jews.[5] Here, Elio is reinforcing the impression that the Perlman family is open to differing ideologies.

In one of the next scenes, Oliver challenges a claim made by Mr. Perlman about the origins of the word apricot by expressing his own knowledge of the word that is in opposition to Mr. Perlman’s. After Oliver finishes speaking, Mr. Perlman reveals it was a test to see if Oliver would question his viewpoint. This reveals that the Perlman’s openly welcome disagreement when it is backed by academically driven reasoning and logic. Oliver portrays a sense joy with a smile once he is reassured of the safe and open environment that the Perlman household provides.

Because Elio and Oliver are able to have a sense safety in this kind of home environment, it is clear to the audience that Call Me by Your Name is not a film that portrays its gay characters “as victims or for the purpose of humor.”[6] Instead, the film’s central focus relies on Elio and Oliver figuring out their desire for one another. For example, in a dinner scene, Elio makes fun of Oliver for his arrogance and American mannerisms. However, Mr. and Mrs. Perlman express to Elio that he might not fully understand Oliver. Here, Elio’s attempt to separate himself from Oliver is met with criticism from his family who, as we have seen, have already established their open mindset on the diversity of others. The Perlman’s challenge for Elio to try and understand Oliver on a deeper level establishes to Elio that he is free to explore his desire for Oliver, which therefore allows the film to “incorporate itself into the hegemonic arrangement.”[7]

Thus far, Call Me by Your Name has already drastically modified “the boundaries of power” that have had hold over popular queer cinema[8]. Although the main characters are both white and male, the rules under which Elio and Oliver are able to interact with each other are away from the repressive influences of white heterosexual male masculinity. One of the key turning points in the film is when Mrs. Perlman reads a story to Mr. Perlman and Elio about a knight that inquires the question, “is it better to speak or to die?”[9] Elio expresses that he would not be brave enough to answer the question, to which Mr. Perlman reinforces that if Elio is having problems he can open up to them.

However, for Elio, this conflict over his desire for Oliver comes from within himself. Elio’s inner conflict does not stem from the power of the dominant heterosexual ideology, but rather from his own uncertainty of whether or not Oliver feels the same desire for him as he feels for Oliver. Therefore, the argument that claims, “for mainstream audiences to be able to sympathize with [gay] characters they must be tragic figures” does not adequately apply to Elio and Oliver’s characters in Call Me by Your Name.[10]

As previously mentioned, the film at first presents the character of Oliver as a masculine white male, much in tune to the dominant ideology of American culture. What is most striking about this, is that the film is able to shed this outer layer of his character and reveal his inner complexities, rather than give in to the common complaint that contemporary queer cinema has a “tendency to focus on masculinity.”[11] Oliver is commonly referred to by several characters as “movie star” and at first appears to give in to these stereotypical features of a masculine male with his short responses to Elio and the abrupt way of saying goodbye to anyone— “Later!”[12] However, once Oliver opens up to Elio, we see that he is a character with just as much depth as a non-masculine character.

The best scene that shows Oliver’s inner complexity is the morning after Elio and Oliver spend the night together and Elio gives him the cold shoulder. Luca Guadagnino leaves the camera on Oliver’s face to show him trying to smile at Elio. When Elio ignores and therefore rejects his smile, we can see Oliver’s expression change from happiness to fear and regret. Right then, as his facial expression changes, the spectator is no longer consumed by his masculinity, but rather his emotional journey with Elio. This is yet another way in which the film deliberately rejects the dominant ideology of white male masculinity to reveal a character who is more complex than his projected image.

Although the Perlman’s are able provide Elio and Oliver with a safe environment to fall in love—away from ideological repression—there are lingering moments throughout the film that suggest that the dominant ideologies remain firmly in power in the outside world. For instance, after Elio and Oliver kiss for the first time, Oliver stops them from going any further. He insists that they have not yet “done anything to be ashamed of.”[13] Here, the audience is given a subtle reminder that the dominating ideologies still have power against Elio and Oliver’s desire for one another.

Additionally, in one of the following scenes, Elio tells Oliver that his mother says that him and his family are “Jews of discretion.” Elio says this after noticing that he does not wear the same Star of David necklace that Oliver wears with pride.[14] From this scene, we see that although the Perlman’s are open-minded and progressive parents, they are not ignorant to the dangers of the repressive forces presented by dominant Christian ideology when it comes to expressing their religion.

Once Elio and Oliver’s anxieties concerning their initial interest in one another pass, they decide to get together and consummate their desires. However, this sexually driven scene is not explicit in the act of gay sexual relations. For instance, director Luca Guadagnino chooses to carefully pan the camera out of the scene to the window just as Elio and Oliver begin to undress themselves, essentially denying the audience of seeing them have intercourse. This is in direct opposition to the scenes where Elio makes love to his other interest, Marzia, where we are explicitly shown Elio thrusting himself upon her in the grass when they decide to have sex.

Within Guadagnino’s decision to withhold Elio and Oliver’s love scene, lies the larger hegemonic negotiation of depicting queer sex on screen. Although we are able to see Elio make love to a minor female character, the director chose to not show the two main male characters having sexual relations. Here, it is clear that director Guadagnino was making an implicit choice in order to make “non-normative sexualities marketable to mainstream cinema audiences.”[15] Because of this, we can see that the dominant heterosexual ideologies were a contributing factor in the decision to exclude an explicit sex scene between Oliver and Elio. Although this choice can be viewed in a negative light, a more optimistic reading of this scene would indicate that it helps spectators spot “the ebb and flow of cultural change” in Call Me by Your Name.[16] Therefore, it can be asserted that excluding a queer sex scene is a sacrifice that was made in the overall treatment of queer characters in the film. This is simply a part of the ongoing contemporary hegemonic negotiation in order to have queer stories such as Call Me By Your Name reach a larger audience.

Additionally, during the film it is shown that Elio and Oliver share a similar passion for literature, which surprisingly contributes to the larger hegemonic negotiations the film tries to make. For example, Elio and Oliver both are shown in several scenes reading books, whether it be lazing by the pool in the sun or in the dusty attic while eating a peach. Also, Elio often verbally comments on his own reading abilities, such as the scene where he takes Oliver to a spring and says, “I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read here.”[17] In his article on queer cinema in Hollywood, Stuart Richards claims that “literary passion is used as a form of cultural capital” for queer films such as Call Me by Your Name.[18] Not only is the film a literary adaptation in itself, but it constantly indulges and rewards the viewer who can relate to the character’s similar passions for literature. Therefore, this becomes a way in which the film makes a hegemonic negotiation in order to have wider audiences watch queer cinema.

Many contemporary critics of Call Me by Your Name commended the film’s ability to convey a love story “that transcends the same-sex dynamic of its central couple.”[19] Also, another attribute associated with the film in a recent review with The Hollywood Reporter, suggests that it portrayed the “deep wells of emotion and surges of insight into human nature and relationships.”[20] These common praises for the film reject the sentiment made by Stuart Richards that “mere visibility [of queer characters] can be mistaken for social and political legitimacy” because not only did the film show a queer relationship, but it did so in a way that garnered sympathy from mass audiences without the characters being “tragic figures.”[21] From this, it is evident that Call Me by Your Name goes against the dominant heterosexual ideologies present in American culture, which helps larger audiences make a meaningful connection from the perspective of its queer characters to the overall universal human experience.

Overall, it has been discussed that there are several instances in the film Call Me by Your Name that demonstrate its part in the ongoing process of hegemonic negotiation between dominant and opposing ideologies. From the very beginning of the film, it is established that the Perlman household provides a sanctuary like environment in which Elio and Oliver are able to discover their desire and love for each other without dominant repressive heterosexual ideologies interfering. Because of this, Elio and Oliver do not become queer characters of tragedy, but rather are shown to be characters of complexity—which, in turn, allows the film to adequately modify the power exerted by the dominating forces of the ruling ideology. Although these dominant ideologies remain, for the most part, outside of the film’s context, Elio’s Jewish religion and Oliver’s purported shame about his homosexual tendencies indicate that the world outside of the Perlman’s household is not as accepting. This also shows in director Luca Guadagnino’s decision to not show a queer sex scene, which, along with the film’s literary references, becomes a part of the larger hegemonic negotiation in allowing queer stories reach wider audiences and therefore become a visible and validated aspect of American culture. Because of these factors, contemporary reception of the film was met with praise for the film’s ability to reject dominant ideologies and present queer characters that were able to convey a universal love story. And so, it is clear that because Call Me by Your Name rejects dominant heterosexual ideologies and does so in the process of hegemonic negotiation, it should be considered both a culturally and ideologically significant film that is landmark in contemporary queer cinema.

Notes

[1] Harry M. Benshoff, Film and Television Analysis: An Introduction to Methods, Theories, and Approaches, (London: Routledge – Taylor & Francis Group, 2016), 31.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Peter Knegt, Forging a Gay Mainstream: Negotiating Gay Cinema in the American Hegemony, (MA diss., Concordia University, 2008), 62.

[4] Call Me by Your Name, film, directed by Luca Guadagnino, (2017; Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures Classics, 2018), Blu-Ray.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Peter Knegt, Forging a Gay Mainstream: Negotiating Gay Cinema in the American Hegemony, (MA diss., Concordia University, 2008), 55.

[7] Ibid., 63.

[8] Stuart Richards, Overcoming the stigma: the queer denial of Indiewood, (Journal of Film and Video 68, no. 1 2016), 21.

[9] Call Me by Your Name, film, directed by Luca Guadagnino, (2017; Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures Classics, 2018), Blu-Ray.

[10] Stuart Richards, Overcoming the stigma: the queer denial of Indiewood, (Journal of Film and Video 68, no. 1 2016), 23.

[11] Peter Knegt, Forging a Gay Mainstream: Negotiating Gay Cinema in the American Hegemony, (MA diss., Concordia University, 2008), 62.

[12] Call Me by Your Name, film, directed by Luca Guadagnino, (2017; Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures Classics, 2018), Blu-Ray.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Peter Knegt, Forging a Gay Mainstream: Negotiating Gay Cinema in the American Hegemony, (MA diss., Concordia University, 2008), 79.

[16] Harry M. Benshoff, Film and Television Analysis: An Introduction to Methods, Theories, and Approaches, (London: Routledge – Taylor & Francis Group, 2016), 32.

[17] Call Me by Your Name, film, directed by Luca Guadagnino, (2017; Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures Classics, 2018), Blu-Ray.

[18] Stuart Richards, Overcoming the stigma: the queer denial of Indiewood, (Journal of Film and Video 68, no. 1 2016), 23.

[19] Peter Debruge, “Film Review: Call Me by Your Name,” Variety, January 23, 2017.

[20] Boyd van Hoeij, “Call Me by Your Name: Film Review Sundance 2017,” Hollywood Reporter, January 23, 2017.

[21] Stuart Richards, Overcoming the stigma: the queer denial of Indiewood, (Journal of Film and Video 68, no. 1 2016), 23.