and, “Do I dare?”

peach

Call Me by Your Name only just reached the art house cinema in my hometown, where I’ve been visiting my parents. I’ve since seen it twice and cried both times. The adjectives frequently applied to it – sumptuous, sensual, rapturous – are all true. It’s an experience that transports you (or at least, me) out of the theater, and I spent its two-hour run nervous, turned on, submerged. It felt like falling in love. That is to say, the heady, sensory overdrive that makes every gesture, smell, and sound seem as if you’re on a different plane of experiencing. The film radiates the strange alchemy of infatuation, where by seeing and treasuring the mystery of another person, something as mundane as our own bodies and the spaces we take up can become transcendent. Timothée Chalamet’s self-conscious physicality as Elio is a revelation. It’s a film that will stick with me for a long time for many reasons, but it’s in no small part thanks to its most infamous scene.

Yes, I’m talking about the peach fucking; the Utena turns into a car of Call Me by Your Name. “The peach scene,” or even just a peach emoji while on the topic, has become metonymous with the film itself. Much like Utena turning into a car, the pervasiveness of peach fucking jokes dilutes both the scene and the story as a whole. If you haven’t been exposed to these, here’s the deal: shortly after consummating his slow burning sexual tension with 24-year-old grad student Oliver, Elio masturbates with and into a peach. Oliver discovers him napping, and figures the rest out when his lover tastes like fruit juice. In the movie, a horrified Elio stops him just short of eating the peach infusion. In the 2007 novel, Oliver goes through with it, and the lead-up is much more graphic by virtue of being in Elio’s head space.

At my first showing, a surprising portion of the audience laughed nervously at this scene, just as they had a while earlier when a frustrated, unfulfilled Elio full on inhales Oliver’s discarded swimming trunks. I understand that watching very horny things can be weird in a room full of strangers, but this reaction didn’t connect with me and my white-knuckled, thirsty angst. The crime, if any, that the peach fucking has to answer to is being too on the nose as far as plant symbolism goes. If it’s uncomfortable, I don’t think it’s a laughing sort of uncomfortable. Scenes like this and the trunk-huffing are disconcerting not because they’re ridiculous, but because perhaps it’s rare to get a window into who we are in the corners of our sexual selves when we think nobody is watching. But someone is watching Elio, and it stands to me as a moving example of when being seen can lead to goodness in the midst of fear.

Even (or maybe especially) at its best, sex with another person is terrifying. But our own private erotic selves are a whole different ballgame of potential insecurity. It’s possible to go your entire life without making that part of yourself known, but intimacy has a way of drawing out or compelling us to reveal our weirdest selves. The peach scene in the novel cuts to the heart of the strange experience of having that private self uncovered:

I watched him put the peach in his mouth and slowly begin to eat it, staring at me so intensely that I thought even lovemaking didn’t go so far.

Fantasies are unreliable things. We can control ourselves to a degree in our outward sexual expression, but we largely can’t control our minds. We certainly can’t control what other people think of our minds and interior fantasies. Elio didn’t plan for Oliver to discover him, and quickly puts himself down as “sick.” It’s not clear to me if he actually thinks that, or if he’s indulging in the tendency to deride our own unpolished, personal lore before someone else can. I know I do. If I call my own desire perverted, then maybe it won’t sting coming back to me.

Things that are entirely ours, that we never expected someone else to see, can feel more explicit and vulnerable than sex itself. The act of letting someone into one of the most illogical and solitary parts of ourselves is sort of a microcosm of the worst anxieties of human connection: we desire to be known, we fear our true selves will be rejected, we entrust those we love with things we don’t necessarily trust ourselves with. And human sexuality is a minefield of a thing to give to someone else. It’s dark, entangled with the best and worst of ourselves in equal measure, and often incongruent with everything else we’ve tried to present to the world. Sharing that means we not only have to desperately wish to be taken care of, but for the boundaries of our internal lives to be respected. Love is good stewardship of things we accept will never belong to us.

The real money shot in this vein comes from the book:

I could tell he was tasting it at that very instant. Something that was mine was in his mouth, more his than mine now. I don’t know what happened to me at that moment as I kept staring at him, but suddenly I had a fierce urge to cry, and rather than fight it, as with orgasm, I simply let myself go, as if to show him something equally private about me as well.

Most of these harrowing but incomparably rewarding experiences won’t involve another person literally taking us into themselves. Simply talking through something we’re ashamed of or think is too weird or self-incriminating can bring the same sense of fear and relief. What the peach scene manages to capture, both visually and in text, is one of the best things real intimacy has to offer. We spill what we judge as the roughest, most disgusting, most deeply lodged parts of us, and love is kind enough to let us see it transformed into beauty in the eyes of another.

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