When one considers films which comment on masculinity and its poisonous effect on the male psyche, the usual films to discuss are ones like Taxi Driver and Fight Club, which satirises and warns against the toxicity, rather than showing the alternative, showing how the rejection of masculine ideals can lead to greater happiness. One such film is Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name.
The film follows the teenage son of a University Professor, Elio (Timotheé Chalamet), and the Professor’s slightly older graduate student, Oliver (Armie Hammer). When the student is brought to the Professor’s home in Northern Italy for a summer, Elio is faced with questions regarding his sexuality, as he begins to form an intense sexual relationship with Oliver. Underneath the romance, the film’s deeper message comments on how adherence to traditional heteronormative romance and the masculinity involved in such relationships can be harmful to the individuals involved, and not allow a person to fully explore their being.
Oliver is ostensibly a hypermasculine idol at the beginning. He’s handsome, charismatic, carefree, and lives life to the fullest, highlighted by his rabid consumption of what life offers – drinking entire glasses of orange juice in one gulp, dancing wildly with numerous partners, exploring all of life’s opportunities. At first it seems that Elio wants to be like him, copying some of his mannerisms (e.g. openly wearing the star of David necklace, where his mother (Amira Casar) had referred to the Perlman family as “Jews of Discretion”), and joining in activities like swimming and scenic walks. This initial attempt to copy him is arguably a misinterpretation of his feelings by Elio, seeing an object of affection as someone to copy, as might be a traditional masculine response, rather than Elio’s true feeling, where the affection shows his non-heteronormative interest in Oliver as a sexual being.
It is through his sexual relationship with Oliver that Elio seems to open himself up and more freely enjoy life. When he has sex with Marzia (Esther Garrel), he enjoys it, but more importantly uses it as a source of pride – bragging to Oliver – however the lack of a real romantic connection with her removes the happiness that is traditionally associated with a first love. Meanwhile, when he first has sex with Oliver, truly embracing his sexuality, he experiences true ecstacy. This could be seen to be saying that when Elio is following traditional heteronormative ideas of romance, taking the masculine ideal of finding a beautiful girl and sleeping with her, he is not fulfilled, and only through rejecting the society-taught patriarchal scripts is he able to satisfy his romantic and sexual needs.
This is further supported by the monologue given by to Elio by his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) at the end of the film: in society, men and boys are told to push down and repress emotions, to reject sadness and heartbreak in order to portray the stylised stoicism shown off by masculine icons like Sean Connery or Steve McQueen. “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!”, is a line from said monologue, saying that Elio’s heartbreak over Oliver leaving is not a failure to be manly, not a tragedy in society’s eyes, but rather an acceptance of one’s own losses, and the hope that a person can build upon themselves, like the Japanese art of kintsugi, repairing cracks in pottery in such a way to add beauty, acknowledging how the history of a person can make them better, rather than expecting people to manage the impossible task of holding themselves together as the cracks form and everything falls apart.
In this way, Elio is the real masculine idol. But not masculine in the traditional sense: a new modern way, where a man can be a man but still love, lose, win, fail, be broken, and pick himself up; to improve himself through acknowledging his past, and hopefully building upon it. Elio Perlman, one of the most wonderfully portrayed characters in modern cinema, is less of a hypermasculine man’s man, and instead is who all men should aspire to be, even if just for the chance of a beautiful summer with true love.