Call Me by Your Name, Lolita and taming discomfiting desires on the big screen
It says something about our movie-making (and movie-watching) culture when a particular kind of love story is stripped of the very things that make it so particular – though I’ll admit this is why Call Me by Your Name has grossed over $10 million at the US box office.
Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name has been in the news for a while, most recently because it was nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Picture). And it is a very good film, a textbook example of what a director does – that is, orchestrating mood and texture and a tone of performance. But it’s also very different from the novel it’s based on, by André Aciman.
I read the book after watching the movie, and was startled by how much “mainstreaming” has been done – either due to squeamishness (the “will we turn off audiences?” question) or a sort of better-safe-than-sorry rationale with an eye on the box office. (“You don't want to end up in a space in which people giggle,” Guadagnino said).
I’m talking not just about the tweaking of the now-famous peach scene (where Elio masturbates into the fruit, and the subsequent actions of his lover, Oliver), but also the omission of the following passage from the book: “We had never taken a shower together. We had never even been in the same bathroom together. ‘Don’t flush,” I’d said. ‘I want to look.’ What I saw brought out strains of compassion, for him, for his body, for his life, which suddenly seemed so frail and vulnerable. ‘Our bodies won’t have any secrets now,’ I said as I took my turn and sat down... [He] kissed me on the mouth, and, pressing and massaging my tummy with the flat of his palm, watched the whole thing happen.”
Writing in Vulture, E Alex Jung, put it beautifully. “It’s a bizarre, beautiful scene, precisely because Elio wants to get to a place where even the most private, mundane bodily functions become acts of intimacy.” The part where Oliver helps Elio vomit is not there, either. “I opened my mouth. Before I knew it I was sick as soon as he touched my uvula. But what a solace to have my head held, what selfless courage to hold someone’s head while he’s vomiting. Would I have had it in me to do the same for him?”
At one level, it’s completely understandable why these bits did not make it to the movie. It’s one thing to read something like this — with hazy pictures forming in our minds — and quite another to see these images, leaving nothing to the imagination. But consider this. When Stanley Kubrick made Lolita, in 1962, the censorship rules did not allow for scenes like the one where Humbert Humbert gets a hand job from his step-daughter, in her school, in a study hall amidst other students. From the book: “I sat beside [Lolita] just behind that neck and that hair, and unbuttoned my overcoat and for sixty-five cents plus the permission to participate in the school play, had [Lolita] put her inky, chalky, red-knuckled hand under the desk.”
More than five decades later, things don’t seem to have changed much when it comes to the depiction of discomfiting desires on the big screen. Of course, a filmmaker is not bound to be faithful to every nuance of a novel. But in these novels, the fetishism is so bound to the relationships that the whole story comes off very differently without these scenes. Call Me by Your Name, on screen, is a genteel love story. On Popcorn With Peter Travers, Armie Hammer, who plays Oliver, said as much. “Guadagnino, in his genius, was able to sort of boil down and distill all of the elemental human emotions of what it feels like to be infatuated with somebody and what it feels like to fall in love with somebody.”
The book, though, transforms your very perception of what love can be, what togetherness can be. It takes you places you’ve never been, which is at least one way to define great art. It reminded me of something the Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Oshima said while speaking about his controversial Empire of Passion, which came out two years after his scandalous In the Realm of the Senses (1976). (The latter, which featured explicit, unsimulated sex, was based on a Japanese geisha and prostitute who asphyxiated her lover, severed his genitals and carried them around.)
Oshima said, “Just as in In the Realm of the Senses, the story is about a man and a woman who do not hesitate in aligning their daily existence with their deepest sexual urges. Nowadays, nothing interests me quite as much as approaching the various forms that love can take with people who can only be saved by that love.” The sex in In the Realm of the Senses isn’t titillating but transformative, vital to our understanding of characters. Reading Call Me by Your Name, I felt I knew Elio and Oliver so much more.
This isn’t a call for nudity. This isn’t about provocation, either. (I am thinking of Gaspar Noé’s Love, which was released in 2015. In 3D.) And we’d never have these questions if Call Me by Your Name was an original screenplay, or if we’d never read the book. But it says something about our movie-making (and movie-watching) culture when a particular kind of love story is stripped of the very things that make it so particular – though I’ll admit this is why Call Me by Your Name has grossed over $10 million at the US box office. Had it hewed closer to the book, it would have been a controversial “art film” that more people read about than actually saw.
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