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Is 'Call Me By Your Name's' Lack of Explicit Sex a Problem?

Call Me By Your Name, director Luca Guadagnino’s critically adored adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel, is hot as hell. It’s also incredibly funny, gorgeously shot and emotionally devastating. But how sexual it is and, by extension, how gay it is has come under some scrutiny in the weeks leading up to its release, thanks to a particular cut away from an explicit scene.

After weeks of dancing around each other and their feelings, Italian-American teen Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and visiting scholar Oliver (Armie Hammer) finally consummate their passion. They kiss, touch, and eventually hop into bed. Then, the camera pans to a window, away from its core couple’s carnal connection.

Guadagnino’s choice has some critics calling the film timid about the sex and sexuality of Aciman’s story, as well as calling the project “cold” charges similar to the ones lobbed against other queer movies like Carol, Moonlight and more. In other words, Call Me By Your Name has reignited an oft-fiery debate: How important is explicit sex in a romantic film about same-sex partners?

The argument for more sex in gay films is a simple one: We’re not having this conversation about romantic movies with straight protagonists. There’s no question about what is too much, no debate over pans to windows just as sex is going to happen. That’s not because there aren’t movies that are sex-bashful far from it. But there are movies with explicit straight sex in addition to those that are more chaste. Meanwhile, almost all widely released films about same-sex lovers follow the same pattern.

Take, for example, BPM. The French film with explicit gay sex scenes just played the New York Film Festival, the same fest that welcomed Call Me By Your Name with open arms and standing ovations. Call Me By Your Name has a slowly expanding release scheduled starting in November. BPM has only a very limited American release plan. You can chalk that up to other differences: one’s entirely in French without stars, while the other is mostly in English and stars Armie Hammer. But the fact is the more sex-frank film is the one left without a big distributor.

Including explicit sex scenes would also help curb the perceived mainstreaming of films like Call Me By Your Name, which has already started receiving the “universal” label. Guadagnino used the word himself when defending casting straight actors. Moonlight received the same moniker; in all instances, it’s a troubling hetwashing of what is an explicitly queer story. Sex scenes aren’t the only way to avoid that, of course, but it’s easier to scrub the sexuality out of the story in one’s mind if the film is never explicit in its sex scenes.

Unfortunately, it seems there may have been extenuating circumstances in Call Me By Your Name’s case. Writer James Ivory, who authored the film’s original script and was originally attached to direct, has brought this point up as well. His version apparently called for more nudity, and that filtered out as Guadagnino’s vision took over.

“According to Luca, both actors had it in their contract that there would be no frontal nudity, and there isn’t, which I think is kind of a pity,” Ivory wrote. “Again, it’s just this American attitude. Nobody seems to care that much, or be shocked, about a totally naked woman. It’s the men. This is something that must be so deeply cultural that one should ask: ‘Why?’”

Of course, there are ways to shoot around a nudity clause in a sex scene, and the movie is plenty sexy elsewhere. Take, for instance, the infamous scene of Elio masturbating with a peach from Aciman’s book, which is kept intact in the adaptation despite Guadagnino initially thinking it was unfilmable. The pair’s first kiss is exploratory and marvelous. The sexual tension is there: it’s just the climactic act in this one scene missing. Which, of course, makes the fact that it’s missing at all stand out all the more.

Quite frankly, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution here. But there is an easy explanation for why critics, particularly LGBTQ critics, get so heated when it comes to these movies: They’re few and far between. Each one matters, and everyone wants something like Call Me By Your Name to be exactly what they want it to be. There’s a sense of preciousness, of ownership that increases one’s sense of scrutiny.

Call Me By Your Name, like Moonlight and Carol before it, won’t be exactly right for everyone. That’s an impossible standard. But as we get more and more queer films every year look at Beach Rats and God’s Own Country, also out this year the expectation for each to be perfect for everyone will lessen. With that relaxed standard, hopefully, will come the understanding of all the wonderful scenes, performances and moments that these films have to offer.