This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Sally Jane Black’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
cw: abuse, violation of consent
This year's token queer representation at awards season returns to the fertile grounds Moonlight broke free of: mixing watered-down queerness with predatory stereotypes.
There's a way to tell this story without delving into this kind of relationship. What this film wants to be is bittersweet. What this film wants to be is quiet, contemplative, achingly beautiful, the feeling of a crush requited, the feeling of discovery and awakening. And you can see that it achieves this with significant portions of its audience, but to engage with that you have to ignore some glaring red flags.
The film goes out of its way to tell us some things: Elio is 17. Elio is a virgin. Elio is inexperienced. Elio is still learning how to navigate his emotions. Elio doesn't notice when he's being hit on. It goes out of its way to emphasize all of this, in some cases repeatedly. It goes out of its way to emphasize that Elio doesn't know how to talk about these things, how to seduce, how to engage maturely with this bond he's developing. To tell the story of an emotionally immature young man falling in love with another man is one thing. To show their relationship, to show them love each other, to show them make a profound connection and grow because of it, that would be amazing. But this film intentionally contextualizes this relationship with (a) the history of older queer men using and abusing younger queer men, (b) the overall patriarchal history of this between older and younger people, especially with children, (c) with the ongoing apologia for pedophilia wherein perpetrators cling to legality as defined by the very men who prey on younger people, and (d) with a horrifying moment wherein consent is violated and the victim blamed.
That last refers explicitly to the moments, post-peach, where Oliver is wrestling Elio. This activity is one commonly associated in both fiction and fact with pedophilia, anyway, but in this moment, Elio says "Stop. You're hurting me." To which Oliver responds, "Then stop fighting."
This is the mindset of a man in his 30s (or possibly 20s, but he looks older to me) who sleeps with a 17 year old boy. He hurts that child, then blames the child for it. He ignores the pleas to stop. He completely violates him in that moment, more so than he had done before.
This doesn't feel like a queer movie to me. This feels, in the current climate of exposure of predator after predator coming out of Hollywood, as a defense, a fairytale idealizing these relationships, as if someone is blatantly saying, "no, see, sometimes it's beautiful." The Sufjan Stevens songs (Elliott Smith is dead, so the cheap knockoff will do) echo about the lush Italian countryside and massive castles where idle rich people excavate relics from allegedly more sexually liberated times, the young man weeps into the fireplace, his youth and style and passion and impossibly accepting father and abundant wealth contextualizing his pain as transitory. It's a bittersweet moment, not a crushing one, not a breaking point, but simply a moment of growth. "We're not hurting anyone. We're building their character," the film says. "But they had different values in that time and place!" "This happened to a friend of mine and he turned out all right!" Queer pain apologizing for patriarchal violence.
The more I think about it, the angrier I get. Instead of showing how the closet enables this kind of relationship, it attempts to suggest that this liberates Elio instead.
It didn't even go out of its way to undercut the predation. Oliver is getting married. The film implies he had this girlfriend the whole time. He lied by omission so he could take advantage of Elio, and he calls like a cowardly dog from another continent to tell him the truth. He doesn't even help him through the pain, and despite the fact that Elio's parents know, they're not there at his side as he weeps into the flames. Queer boys in 1981 only get so much comfort. Yet the film clearly finds this ending to be tinged with sweetness. It wants us to feel like this was a beautiful moment (I know this because almost everyone is rating this five stars and gushing about it). It tells us that this was okay, that this is part of life, that it's all right.
And it isn't. What Oliver did is find a boy who doesn't know what he's doing, knowingly build up a relationship with him, and then leave him and break his heart. He used him. He absolutely used him as a summer fling. This is not a romance. This film is a horror movie.
It clearly shows an understanding of the oppressive atmosphere Elio is living in. You hear mentions of Il Duce; the family hides the fact that they're Jewish. There's still repression in the air. There's still a need to hide one's identity. Others have suggested this, too, is superficial, another form of tokenization, perhaps. The parallels between hiding this and the closet aren't coincidental (they even act more openly after the air is partly cleared regarding Elio's sexuality). It seems to be used in this film simply as an indication of the repression they face--and perhaps characterization that suggests where their open-mindedness might come from, given the parallels--but that usage is meaningless without more substance. Still, it indicates that the filmmakers understood that Elio is abandoned to make his own way after the one queer role model he has connected to leaves and hurts him. Despite his father's assurances and that one couple he shows contempt for, he still ends the film staring, alone, into ashes.
Not a single woman in this film is given anything to do but react to men.
Abrupt editing makes the film seem oddly paced. It feels like the film is eliding better moments we aren't privy to. It feels like the film can't decide what its pace needs to be. It's hard to tell whether the acting was truly terrible or if I just did not feel any chemistry between Elio and Oliver because of my distaste for what this film was. The soundtrack manages to be full of energy and life in moments but the action paired with it rarely works with it, other than the Sufjan "third rate Simon and Garfunkel" Stevens stuff. The scenery is gorgeous, and at times, the film finds closeups and low angles that turn these people into something more than dull tools of patriarchy. But even were it a well crafted film overall, it still would not make up for the apparent themes of normalizing abusive relationships.