(Slight spoilers for both movies ahead. Read at your own risk!) As a movie, Call Me By Your Name (CMBYN) is filled with elements I love: vintage gays, picturesque views of the Italian countryside, a soundtrack filled with songs by Sufjan Stevens. However, none of these things were enough to make me even begin to enjoy watching it.
Actress Adèle Haenel, who stars as Héloïse in the film Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.
I feel like I need a disclaimer. This is not about me shitting on CMBYN, at least not entirely. I wanted to like it! I really, really wanted to be able to fall in love with this story the way so many others had. That didn’t end up happening. If asked, I wouldn’t even be able to tell you what bothers me about the movie. Maybe it’s the way Arnie Hammer looks like he could be Timothée Chalamet’s dad instead of his lover. Maybe it was the infamous “I’m going to have sex with this peach and then my lover will eat it” scene. Maybe it was because I’d read the book first, and had had to stop multiple times to do dramatic readings of scenes I wouldn’t have been able to get through otherwise. Did you know the book has a bit where Elio and Oliver poop together? They massage each other’s stomachs during the process and in the end the imagery of two turds in the bowl together is supposed to symbolize something. I don’t remember what. Probably something about love. Unfortunately, this didn’t make it into the movie. A pity, I would have liked to see how people justified it in the name of “gay love.” Whatever it was, CMBYN left me disappointed— a disappointment I’ve been carrying around with me for years. While I do know some people who feel the same way I did, most of the discussion of CMBYN I’ve encountered has been purely centered around how beautiful and moving the story is. While I won’t begrudge anyone who perhaps saw their own journey into queerhood reflected by this movie, it concerns me that the strongest defenders of Elio and Oliver’s relationship have been straight girls. Of all the movies to gain an online cult following, why this one? Why not Moonlight? Why was 2017’s cute gay lovestory of the year the one with a suspisiously large age gap (Elio is 17, Oliver, 24)? Why doesn't anyone defending this gap seem to be upset by the fact that the book’s author, André Aciman, has said in an interview that he finds twelve-year-old girls “very attractive,” so maybe the “technically legal age” isn’t the thing we should be focusing on? Of all the gay relationships for straight people to fetishize, I feel like they could have gone for one a bit more imagnitive than “Grad student spends a few weeks having sex with a high schooler and then leaves the country.” Now that I’ve spent long enough complaining, I want to talk about Portrait of a Lady on Fire (POALOF). This movie was everything CMBYN wanted to be but couldn’t. Released on Valentine's Day, it’s the story of painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant), her reluctant muse Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), and the love between them. The film is set in 18th century France—yes, that means corsets. However, it goes deeper than a simple, “Oh, we’re in love but it’s not allowed.” The movie delves into issues still prevalent today, with topics like abortion and marriage as a system of the patriarchy examined through an unmistakably feminine lens. There are no poop scenes; instead, the movie includes the first on-screen depiction of period cramps I have ever seen in a theater. It’s not the age gap creating tension, but rather the fact that Héloïse’s hand in marriage has been promised to a man she has never met. The sex scenes are powerful without involving peaches, and they flow well with the passionate love story being told. Portrait of a Lady still included all the things I liked about CMBYN: pretty clothes, beautiful scenery, a title that doesn’t seem too long until you’re typing it out multiple times, etc. I will say that there was no Sufjan Stevens in the soundtrack, but the music it did have acted as part of the plot instead of mere background music. So, what made this movie so much easier for me to enjoy than CMBYN? To start, there’s no just-on-the-edge-of-pedophelia age gap. In fact, after winning Best Cinematography, the cast of Portrait walked out of France’s César awards in protest of convicted child rapist Roman Polanski being awarded Best Director. Along with the lack of age gap, there are no obvious power dynamics in the movie. While Héloïse does technically have a higher “social standing” than Marianne, they are never presented as anything other than equals. Even Sophie, a servant portrayed by Luàna Bajrami, is not treated as lesser than any of the other characters. While she does perform some traditional servant tasks, there are also scenes where Sophie can be seen relaxing while Héloïse and Marianne do housework, flipping the usual employee/employer dynamic. Despite her “lower” status, her friendship with the other girls never feels unbalanced. There are so many more things I could say about this movie, but I’m already past my word limit. In one final push to get people to see it, I’ll say that I truly believe what made it so good is the complete absence of the straight male gaze. In a movie entirely based on the idea of watching someone else in order to paint them, this fact becomes essential. To go a step further, director Céline Sciamma actually used to date lead actress Adèle Haenel (Héloïse). This isn’t a movie about lesbians made for, or even by, straight men. Instead, it’s made by people like us, and for anyone who wants to see gay yearning alongside some great French seaside aesthetics. In other words, Portrait of a Lady was everything I had been left missing after CMBYN. I can only hope others feel the same way.