Has your life been touched by ‘Chalamania’? If you’re one of the many who have seen Luca Guadagnino’s cult triumph Call Me By Your Name, the answer is probably yes. The film, which depicts precocious teenager Elio’s sultry, tension-filled summer romance with older family-friend Oliver, has catapulted its star Timothée Chalamet into a position of saint-like adulation. His beauty and mystique has captured the public imagination in a way only comparable, according to Peter Bradshaw, with DiCaprio’s “Leomania” following the release of Titanic: Chalamet, like Leonardo, is ‘a floppy-haired, androgynous young actor with enormous talent, a laid-back sense of cool and a name that’s deceptively hard to pronounce.’ Of course, there is one crucial difference. Call Me By Your Name, in depicting queer love, is more than one step away from Titanic’s safe, universal acceptability. The film’s deeply erotic imagery is dominated by both traditionally Edenic symbols of prodigal fecundity, such as that of the now-infamous peaches, and a Classically queer appreciation of the male form. The sparkling, verdant Northern-Italy setting turns it into an open, sunny, sea-and-sand invitation for experimentation and fluidity. American graduate student Oliver is invited to staying with Elio’s family as he researches his PhD in Classical Philosophy; the washing-up of undiscovered Greek statues in a nearby lake further foregrounds the aesthetic of Classical androgyny. With their firmly curved chests and supple arms and legs, these statues have, as Elio’s father puts it, an ‘ageless ambiguity […] daring you to desire them’. He might as well be describing Chalamet.
The rise of Timothée is, according to the New York Times, just one example of a new development in the Western male aesthetic. We are now entering what has been termed ‘the age of the twink’. Fionn Whitehead, lead actor in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), whose delicate fragility is accentuated by the military costuming, and Lucas Hedges, who recently starred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and Lady Bird, opposite Chalamet, are also cited as prime examples of the twinky aesthetic. The fact that a body-type associated with slender, hairless and queer men is being adopted as an ideal by the heterosexual mainstream could signal many things. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, it has been argued that it demonstrates a shying away from the traditionally bulkier, stronger and therefore more “threatening” male forms. This is obviously a reductive and simplistic take on male sexual aggression: especially in a queer sphere where the abuse of other men is as much of an issue as heterosexual abuse. However, if masculinity is being redefined to encompass body types associated with androgyny and vulnerability such as this, we could be witnessing a shift in attitudes towards gender and consent. Viewed alongside the hit queer films of recent years, of which Call Me By Your Name is a stand-out example, it could tend towards an important, much-needed cultural message: when it comes to physical and emotional affection, go gently, regardless of your sexual orientation or gender.
Let us take a gay film with a totally different aesthetic to Call Me. A bona fide homage to Ang Lee’s 2005 queer (and simply romantic) classic Brokeback Mountain, God’s Own Country (Francis Lee, 2017) depicts the emotional salvation of Johnny, a young and repressed gay man and sheep-farmer working on his father’s failing farm in rural Yorkshire. Alex Secareanu plays the serious but gentle Georghe, a Romanian migrant who arrives at the farm one day to assist Josh O’Connor’s Johnny during the lambing season. Georghe’s intervention is a deus ex machina: he helps bring Johnny out of himself. His rough, capable hands rub a stillborn lamb back to life with the same vim and vigour he later employs when endeavouring to make Johnny smile – for the first time in the film. Johnny’s tendency to alcoholism, laddishness and sullen fits of depression flower into a newfound verbal openness and a willingness to say exactly what he wants: and then go and get it. Their first sex scene is a painfully aggressive grappling in the mud, during which they head-but each other’s bodies without ever managing to kiss. One of the most memorable scenes in Call Me By Your Name, too, is the long and winding preamble to Oliver and Elio’s first sexual encounter. Summoning all his courage, Elio, eager but nervous, bites Oliver’s shoulder, before leaning tenderly and headfirst into his chest. The passionate kiss they then share is cut short by Oliver, who says that they both want to, but crucially can’t do it again: ‘Better not […] we’ve been good. We haven’t done anything to be ashamed of’. Both these films are open depictions of overcoming male inhibition. They are refreshingly raw embodiments of men wrestling with bodily boundaries, as well as the desperate fear of rejection, or worst still – anger. In Call Me By Your Name and God’s Own Country, the boundaries to intimacy are not situational or societal, but emotional. Both films deal with overcoming personal inhibition rather than outer-world opponents – and they are allowed happy endings.
The story is different in Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ 2016 Oscar triumph. In this film the protagonists, Chiron and Kevin, are very much forced to navigate socio-political struggles in order to enjoy the same intimate denouements. Working from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Jenkins’ masterpiece of human observation shows how much harder it is to deal with oppressive concepts of heteronormativity and traditional macho masculinity in a community which is already tirelessly fighting its own oppressions. In this case, the African-American community is Liberty City, Miami: a small, close-knit locality, ravaged by a crack cocaine epidemic during the 90s, at the time both Jenkins and McCraney were growing up there. The film follows Chiron, played by Alex Hibbert, then Ashton Sanders, and finally Trevante Rhodes, throughout childhood, teenagerhood and into early adulthood. During high school, Chiron’s brief, anxious, yet painfully tender and trusting sexual encounter with his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome)is prefaced by halting admissions that they both experience sadness:
Nah. But it makes me want to. What you cry about?
Shit, I cry so much sometimes I feel like I’m gone just turn to drops.
It is a searing depiction of boys allowing themselves to open up and be vulnerable. Soon afterwards, bullied at school for being a ‘faggot’, the teenage Chiron is beaten up by a reluctant and cornered Kevin, someone he has been intimate with. Having been driven to put a chair over the head of his bully, Chiron is locked up in prison.
When they meet up years later in adulthood, in a run-down Miami diner where Kevin cooks and serves food, it emerges he has done time too. The two characters show what it is like to grow a thick skin in a world where everything is stacked against you – to build yourself hard, as Chiron puts it. When, in the last scene of the film, grown-up Chiron admits to Kevin (Andre Holland) that he is the only man – or person – to have ever touched him, it is as much an admission of emotional isolation as it is sexual isolation. The final shot of the film, directly following one of Kevin holding Chiron and stroking his head, is little Chiron’s childish figure, alone on the beach, bathed in blue light. He turns around and looks straight into the camera: young, open and fearless. It is as if he has re-discovered feeling, and with it, himself.
Recent lesbian films have also found moments of softness within the context of fighting spirit. Todd Haynes’ 2015 period-drama Carol is based on a novel that Patricia Highsmith originally had to publish under a pseudonym in 1952. Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) are forced to negotiate Carol’s vindictive ex-husband who uses their lesbianism against her for custody of her own daughter. ‘What happened with Therese,’ Carol desperately announces in a room full of male divorce lawyers, ‘I want it, and I will not deny it.’ She demands to know what use she is to anyone if she’s ‘living against her own grain’. The film is a testimony not just to standing up to oppression, but also to self-vindication – letting into our lives those things which make us most happy. The same concerns about male entrapment and denials of lesbian desire are depicted in Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden (2016), an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel, Fingersmith. In the film, mistress and maid Sook-hee and Lady Hideko emerge triumphantly from the yoke of male financial and sexual exploitation: and specifically, the male pornographic gaze. It emerges that Hideko is being held captive by her porn-collector uncle who has taught her to read it aloud to paying guests. There have been critical debates about whether the film’s explicit lesbian sex scene, shown twice from different perspectives, panders to or rebels against it: the director Park is, troublingly, a man. The Telegraph’s Tim Robey labelled the film a ‘male wet dream’, ‘craven and soft-porny’. Waters herself has stated confidently that, just as Fingersmith was about ‘finding space for women to be with each other away from prying eyes,’ the adaptation is ‘faithful to the idea that the women are appropriating a very male pornographic tradition to find their own way of exploring their desires’, through sex and emotional intimacy.
But gazes both male and straight are always problematic when it comes to queer cinema. All these films are undeniably built largely around their cinematographic aesthetic. One argument is, of course, that they are simply, and technically, ‘good’ films – that they play with visual sensuality and seductive imagery because they know how to and can pull it off. Carol’s quiet, slow and deliberative shots sit in beautiful contrast to the anxious, troubled quick pans and abrupt cuts which saturate The Handmaiden. The raw and open simplicity of God’s Own Country is entirely distinct from the colourful Mediterranean richness of Call Me By Your Name; Moonlight makes the oppressive setting of a neighbourhood ravaged by suffering beautiful in a way that only two creatives who have lived through such experiences themselves could.
The other argument is that these films are presenting queer romances in a kind of intellectualised, art-house packaging. Review pull-quotes for these films are familiar: words like ‘spell-binding’, ‘captivating’, and ‘ravishing’ and ‘exquisite’ are common. This sets a standard whereby these relationships continue to be ‘other’ and unusual on screen. Because of their less widely-accepted subject-matter, they can play with techniques of tension-building and visual fetishisation with little risk of being deemed ridiculous or melodramatic, pivoting on the age-old trope of ‘will-they-or-won’t-they’. Todd Haynes said, in an interview about Carol, that ‘all love stories need boundaries and obstacles that keep the lovers apart,’ and that ‘in a forward-moving western world it becomes harder and harder to come up with scenarios where two people couldn’t be together.’ Carol is a stunningly human depiction of queer love, and one which refrains at all time from pimping out its subject-matter: something that this utilitarian viewpoint seems uncomfortably at odds with. Films demand drama and audiences want to see actors, characters, and scenarios that they can fetishise (hence ‘Chalamania’). Queer narratives provide both of these, while at the same time positioning the director as a ‘progressive’. Call Me By Your Name is deliberately set at a time before the AIDS epidemic, thereby allowing us to enjoy queer beauty without the associated pain.
This is all, of course, cynical. There is nobody who could watch Carol – and indeed very few women or enlightened men who could watch The Handmaiden – and come away feeling like the films weren’t doing their bit for both queer liberation and representation. Moonlight’s milestone win of Best Picture ahead of La La Land at the Oscars was an incredibly significant judicial decision. Its cinematic exploration and depiction of queer black male sexuality was something almost entirely new for this level of commerciality. These films are, furthermore, not just about queer representation: they are also largely about queer expression. Haynes has been part of the new gay film movement since the early 1990’s, and Guadagnino, Lee and McCraney are all openly gay. Sarah Waters is one of the most powerful lesbian voices of her generation, and her novels have been numerously and successfully adapted. But there is a crucial debate that will continue to rage. What is better for the LGBTQ cause: normalisation, or politicisation? Anger and aggression are crucial when bringing about political and social progress. But there is an argument that presenting something as beautiful and triumphant rather than painful and fraught is perhaps more likely to achieve the desired effect: changing – or at least opening up – people’s minds.
This is where all these films so succeed. Even the prettiest are not devoid of anger, nor are they unaware of the social contexts within which they tell their stories. In one of the most rage-filled and moving scenes of recent cinema, The Handmaiden’s two protagonists literally destroy, with ink and blunt instruments, the library of pornography which has been the instrument of Hideko’s sexual oppression and personal entrapment. Carol and Therese are followed by a private investigator and have their sex disturbingly recorded from the next room to use against them in court. At the end of Call Me By Your Name, very much a sheltered summer romance, Oliver tells Elio how lucky he is that his parents know about them and don’t mind. ‘My father would have carted me off to a correctional facility,’ he says, while bringing news of his engagement to a woman. At the start of God’s Own Country, Johnny refuses to go on a date with a boy he has hurried and anonymous sex with. Society has very clearly taught him exactly what kind of couples it is right to call ‘us’. Thus, even these gay male films which focus so much on personal inhibition have much to say about malign external forces: all of their preconceptions and repressions stem directly from the society which has raised them – and us.
It is crucial, therefore, that none of these films are solely, or even primarily, angry or sad. Each presents us with a picture of how it should be: they afford their queer characters salvation. More than this, they show us tenderness. The most important boundaries should not be those society has taught us, but those of the mind and the flesh; the most important inhibitions only those that we bring to any intimacy ourselves. They cry out to the fear of rejection, and feelings of self-protection, deep within us all. You might not in context hear Oliver’s pre-coital question to Elio ‘can I kiss you?’ as a request for consent, but this is exactly what it is – and not just in the legal sense, but in the loving way that anyone with open human tenderness would. Carol, Therese, Sook-hee and Hideko all discover a new freedom, tenderness and satisfaction in each other’s company, safe from the prying and unwanted eyes of men. Chiron’s tenderness is unearthed when he is being intimate with another man. And Johnny and Georghe’s first sexual tussle in the mud is a significant gateway onto the kind of thoughtful gentleness you could barely imagine from either of them at the start of the film. These beautiful gay films are about letting yourself – out, go, cross those physical and emotional boundaries – no matter what you have been told or fed. If there is any trend emerging in the masculinity society values and finds attractive, let us hope it is that which Elio and Oliver display: manfully letting themselves, gently talk, kiss, touch each other and fall in love.