Call Me Bi Your Name
I watched 'Call Me By Your Name' well after most people had seen it. I was pre-occupied with other things when it first came out (mainly trying to combat severe depression and just get out of bed in the mornings) so whilst I caught the buzz around it I never got myself to the
cinema until months after its official release.
I finally managed to get down to the Prince Charles Cinema when it came out there though (films arrive at PCC a few months after they’ve been released in mainstream UK cinemas). I remember it well because I was in the middle of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (a talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave) and part of the therapy involved breaking your day down into routine tasks (like doing the washing), necessary tasks (like going to work to get paid) and pleasurable things (anything that brings you, personally, joy).
I had scheduled in going to see 'Call Me By Your Name' one Thursday afternoon as my pleasurable activity for the day - one of the joys of PCC is that for £10/year membership you get to see films there on weekday daytimes for a fiver, and as an actor/writer/freelancer/person on a zero hours contract that’s something I’m luckily able to do.
It was a cold and slightly grey day in London and tucking up in the red velvet chairs of PCC to watch a film about a holiday romance over a hot Italian summer seemed just the thing my fragile mental state needed.
I knew it was a ‘gay coming-of-age’ story, the ‘next Moonlight’. That's what everyone was saying. That’s what all the press said. That was the word on the street. Even a quick Google now will yield the same results: "Call Me By Your Name is a White Gay Fantasy…", "Luca Guadagnino's gorgeous coming-of-age tale oozes nostalgic melancholy and avoids the clichés in many films about gay love", "…Luca Guadanino's lush gay romance", "…the Oscar-nominated gay film, which stars Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer". And because I knew it was a gay coming-of-age story I wasn’t surprised to see a lot of men sat alone, like me, in the PCC to see the film as well (although maybe single men is just the main demographic for PCC on a weekday daytime?). Anyway, I settled into my seat, put my glasses on and waited for the opening credits, eager to see some gay male romance on the big screen. Maybe a tiny little voice in my head begrudgingly thought 'I wish there was more rep for bis on screen, so I could see myself in something mainstream' but mostly I was just excited about seeing any queerness represented on screen.
So imagine my surprise as the film unfolded to present me with a quite clearly bisexual coming-of-age story!?
I am of course talking about Elio’s discovery that he enjoys sex with both Marzia, a woman, and Oliver, a man.
But I had doubts.
I worried I was reading too much into it. Like a hungry dog begging for scraps at the dinner table, maybe I was so starved of seeing bisexual characters represented on screen (I can count on one hand the number of openly/self-proclaimed bisexual characters in film/TV) that I was reading bisexuality where it wasn’t actually there? Pushing my own agenda onto a film that's actually about realising you're gay.
By the end of the film I had decided yeah, maybe they were both gay but felt obliged to be with women because of societal pressures at the time.
That's what I left the film feeling.
But I still had a niggling voice in my head that said maybe that was the wrong thing to leave feeling. That maybe all the media hype about it being a 'gay coming-of-age' film and all the people saying it was a 'gay love story' was just more mainstream bi-erasure BULLSHIT from some 'totes gays' and ‘super straights’ who at best forget or at worst wilfully don’t want to acknowledge attraction to more than one gender can exist…
And oh boy was I right.
Months and months after watching the film it was still with me, and so were these thoughts. I wanted to read the book but I was scared it would crush my dreams of it maybe being a story about a bisexual teen. I finally borrowed it off my sister after she read it on holiday in Greece.
I gobbled that book up in about two days flat lying on a towel in my parent's garden in Norfolk in the last of the English Summer Sun.
I could not put that book down because I could not believe how seen I felt.
The first warm moment of hope was when Elio says "We are not written for one instrument alone. I am not, neither are you." I felt like he was talking directly into my ear, reminding me that there are people out there who sing to more than one tune, reminding me there are many people who might play me in different ways, as different instruments might play Bach. Though of course the doubter in me said 'he might be talking about different lovers of the same gender'.
But my baby bi hope grew and grew with each page I turned.
At one point Elio proclaims "It would never have entered my mind because I was still under the illusion that, barring what I’d read in books, inferred from rumours, and overheard in bawdy talk all over, no one my age had ever wanted to be both man and woman - with men and women."
It was like I was fifteen again, feeling sexually attracted to one of the girls in my school but discrediting it because I knew I was sexually attracted to boys, and I was still under the illusion that there was no way you could be attracted to both. I didn’t even know the word bisexual. If only I’d realised then what Elio realises here: that you can want both.
So, Elio explicitly says he wants men and women. By now I was convinced this was one hundred per cent the bisexual coming-of-age story I'd always thought it was…
For those of you who’ve been living under a rock and missed the film and/or haven’t read the book I should jump in here and give a brief synopsis.
The story takes place in the summer of 1983 and follows narrator Elio, a 17 year old (multilingual) Jewish-American-Italian boy who becomes infatuated with Oliver, a Jewish-American graduate student staying with Elio’s family on the Italian Riviera whilst he finishes writing an academic paper. The first part of the novel builds Elio's infatuation with Oliver up until it all comes to a head and we discover Oliver has been just as enamoured with Elio as he has been with Oliver.
Elio and Oliver eventually end up sleeping together, but before they do, Elio sleeps with local Italian neighbour Marzia, and continues to sleep with her through much of the early stages of his sexual relationship with Oliver.
At one point he muses on these different sexual encounters: "How strange, I thought, how each shadowed and screened the other, without precluding the other. Barely half an hour ago I was asking Oliver to fuck me and now here I was about to make love to Marzia, and yet neither had anything to do with the other except through Elio, who happened to be one and the same person."
Clearly then he is into having sex with both parties, despite their differences?
Elio even says "It never occurred to me to hide from Oliver what I was doing with Marzia. Bakers and butchers don’t compete, I thought" showing he views them as two very separate things, but he certainly doesn’t see enjoying one as meaning he can’t enjoy the other.
In fact, Elio vividly describes enjoying sex with both Oliver and Marzia and later even talks about how sometimes one reminds him of the other. He kisses Oliver the way he kissed Marzia, Oliver’s smell reminds Elio of the briney smell of seashore Marzia always seems to exude.
At another point, at the height of Elio’s sexual discovery, he is lying naked in bed and says "All I wanted was for him [Oliver] or Marzia to pass by my balcony door and, through the half-drawn shutters, make out my naked body sprawled on the bed. Him or Marzia- but I wanted someone to pass by and notice me, and up to them to decide what to do." He fantasizes further, but his fantasy always involves either one of them coming in and having sex with him.
If all of this doesn’t scream ‘I AM SEXUALLY ATTRACTED TO MEN AND WOMEN’ I’m not sure what does.
And the book is full of it. In fact, I don’t think the film does Elio’s bisexual feelings justice, though I appreciate without a narrators voice it’s harder to get many of these musings in.
It's true that, as in the film, Elio and Marzia’s relationship fizzles. Elio goes with Oliver to Rome for his last few days in Italy and lets the relationship with Marzia die, but this is not because Marzia is a woman, it’s because she’s not Oliver. And that makes all the difference. In Rome there are still women Elio is sexually attracted to, and it even seems Oliver is attracted to some of these women. We know Oliver has a brief fling with a girl called Chiara in the early part of his stay at Elio’s house too, so I’m going to go so far as saying maybe this book even has two bisexual characters in it… what are the chances!? Though it's harder to make this case as we never hear inside Oliver's head.
But when it comes to Elio we are most definitely hearing his inner most thoughts and one of the key things is, he never says anything alluding to the fact that he no longer finds women sexually attractive. Marzia is never an antagonist standing in the way of him and Oliver (as in many gay/lesbian films - see Brokeback Mountain or Carol) she is just another facet to his life and sexual exploration. In fact, towards the very end of the novel we get the line "If I were to punctuate my life with the people whose bed I shared, and if these could be divided into two categories-those before and those after Oliver-then the greatest gift life could bestow on me was to move this divider forward in time." He says people. He has shared the bed of people. Not men. People. I even have hope that maybe a more woke, older Oliver of is including non-binary folk in the list of those he's shared a bed with.
So why did mainstream media call it a 'gay coming-of-age' film?
Well, ninety per cent of bisexual men are still 'in the closet'. This is perhaps in part because generally (according to studies), attitudes towards bisexual women are more positive than towards bisexual men, but it may also be to do with internalised homophobia. Even Elio can’t fully detach himself from his internalised homophobia. Early on in the relationship he talks of the guilt he feels after sleeping with Oliver for the second time: "Would I always experience such solitary guilt in the wake of our intoxicating moments together? Why didn’t I experience the same thing after Marzia? Was this nature’s way of reminding me that I would rather be with her?"
And whilst bisexual women often struggle with being fetishized by (some) straight men or dismissed by (some) lesbians as 'sexual tourists' ready to abandon them for the next man, bisexual men often struggle to persuade men and women alike that they aren’t just gay men with one foot in the closet. Take a look at the hashtag #BisexualMenSpeak to see first hand examples of the prejudices many bi men face. It seems to be so bad in fact that there's an increasing phenomenon for many men to identify as 'mostly straight' rather than risk association with the bi label. A phenomenan that frustrates me because it perpetuates the idea that sexuality only exists in the binary: straight or gay. It perpetuates the idea that bisexuality has to be about some kind of 50:50 attraction as opposed to something that transcends the gender binary and acknowledges that attraction to various genders, to different degrees, are all valid forms of biseuxality (or queer/pansexual if those are your preferred terms). These men would prefer to be considered predominantly straight than anything remotely attached to queer, bi, pan or anything else under that umbrella of attraction to multiple genders. But, I do get it, there's still so much biphobia around I get you might want to avoid the scary label.
All this has brougt me to come to the conclusion that many people overlooked the Bisexuality of Elio and Oliver, or at least Elio’s clearly bisexual tendencies, and preferred to call it a 'gay coming-of-age' story because society still has a big problem not just with recognising and accepting bisexuality, but recognising and accepting male bisexuality in particular. If men can't be straight, society would much rather see them as gay, than bisexual.
I think it’s a real shame that ‘Call Me By Your Name’ hasn’t been more widely and loudly proclaimed as a bisexual coming-of-age story, particularly as we're yet to see one of those proudly celebrated on screen, but until it is, at least we’ve got Elio’s beautiful musings in the book to read over and over until we feel more widely seen and accepted.