Of the nine Best Picture nominees at this year’s Academy Awards, four of them — that’s a healthy 44% — address predatory love. Okay, maybe only three if you don’t include The Shape of Water, though, technically, yes, the protagonist is in love with a literal predator. Down to 33%, which is still a higher percentage than you’d expect from American awards season. Though I suppose Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is never really about rape, only using that (as it used a number of other social issues) as a springboard for dramatic explorations of entirely different social issues. So, okay, fine: 22%.
That leaves Phantom Thread and Call Me By Your Name, both of which are absolutely, inescapably, 100% concerned with “love” that’s mostly characterized by dominance on one side. I should state that I put “love” in quotations because there is, of course, an easy rebuttal to calling such a thing love at all. I should state that jokes equating Shape of Water‘s fish-man to Thread‘s obsessive Woodcock or Call Me‘s way-too-old Oliver have zero business in a serious discussion of this topic. And I should state that I’m a white American male in my late-20s, admittedly a category not known (at the moment, anyway) for our prowess in deft handling of sexual abuse talks. Maybe I have zero business here along with fish-man.
The writer of this Boston Globe piece, on the other hand, has real-world application for Call Me By Your Name. “Like Elio,” Cheyenne Montgomery writes, “I was a lonely teenager who desperately wanted approval. Also like Elio, an adult who should have been a role model instead took me as a lover.” There is no doubt that the 24-year-old Oliver takes advantage of 17-year-old Elio, which is the same thing as saying he has manipulated him, which is the same thing as saying he abused him. Again: Oliver has sexually abused Elio. I believe wholeheartedly in Montgomery’s assertion that this vital fact gets lost in the sunny, dreamy, Sufjan Stevens-y atmosphere of the film.
Montgomery and others assert more, though, namely that Call Me is intentionally and maliciously “dishonest” about this:
“This film has the potential to cause real harm by normalizing this kind of sexual predation. It could be particularly damaging for LGBT youth, who are already at a high risk for depression and suicide. So no, Call Me by Your Name isn’t a radical, brilliant piece of art. We need to call it by its name. That name is abuse.”