The shape and fabric of queer cinema, particularly male-centered gay narratives, has changed and evolved in interesting ways in contemporary film history. Some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking and emotionally resonant stories of the past two decades involve a negotiation of love and desire between two men. Critically acclaimed films featuring these narratives, like “Brokeback Mountain,” “Moonlight” and “Call Me by Your Name,” portray the dynamics of gay relationships in different ways reflective of the contemporary social landscape. These three films, notable for their critical success and wide popular appeal, showcase an important evolution in the artistic representation of gay narratives as well as the cultural reception of these stories.
In 2005, “Brokeback Mountain” made waves as one of the first films in wide release to show open expressions of affection and desire between male characters. The film tells the story of two cowboys, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal, “Stronger”), whose passionate escapades in the isolated Wyoming countryside turn into a lifelong forbidden love. Ennis and Jack both represent a brand of dominant masculinity defined by gruff silences, salt-of-the-earth physical labor and bow-legged stances typical of the unromanticized modern cowboy. But alone in the scrub of Brokeback Mountain, the two men are free to release the façade and explore each other emotionally and physically.
The texture of the relationship between Ennis and Jack in “Brokeback Mountain” is shaped by tense silence. The two men engage in intimacy through aggressive and hurried moments of furious passion, communicating in a few quick thrusts the conflicting tension between desire, guilt, identity and societal condemnation intertwined in the act of love. Silence is almost a tangible and weighted physical force in this film, present and solid as Ennis and Jack try to come to terms with their internal desires. Through this silence, the irreversible bond forged between the two is clear from body language and eye contact alone. Eventually, both men must return to civilization and try to lead normal lives, marrying women and having children. The sweeping tragedy of the film is the collection of speckled moments where Ennis and Jack share a brief rendezvous on Brokeback Mountain, dream of a life together and know it would be impossible.
“Brokeback Mountain” is a story of powerful but heartbreaking forbidden love. The film represents a gay narrative defined by sparse, intense physicality and chronic longing, with men who fit neatly into the mold of dominant masculinity. The film reflects a budding societal acceptance of mainstream queer narratives, an ability to watch two men having sex on screen and appreciate the humanness of their story. But the film’s overwhelming focus on the consequences of being gay also reflects a persistent societal fear of wholly accepting gay romance as simply romance in general. The film is an important benchmark in gay cinematic narratives, particularly male-centered ones, but fails to do the work of more recent critically acclaimed films.
In 2016, Barry Jenkins popped onto the scene with “Moonlight,” a hauntingly beautiful film chronicling the youth, adolescence and young adulthood of Chiron, a kid growing up gay and Black in Miami, played in three parts by Alex Hibbert (“The Chi”), Ashton Sanders (“Straight Outta Compton”) and Trevante Rhodes (“If Loving You Is Wrong”). The film handles its gay coming-of-age story with impeccable nuance and grace, painting a main character whose personality is opaque but whose desires for companionship are viscerally resonant. Chiron’s relationship with Kevin, also played in three parts (newcomer Jaden Piner), Jharrel Jerome (“Mr. Mercedes”) and André Holland (“Selma”) acts as a throughline in the film, as Kevin is Chiron’s first and only sexual encounter.
“Moonlight” is deeply moving in its almost symphonic gay narrative. Like “Brokeback Mountain,” the film has little dialogue; Chiron is defined by his quietness, barely speaking to other characters or voicing his own thoughts and emotions. It is only with Kevin that Chiron is able to articulate his thoughts and feelings, and in every stage of the movie, Kevin’s genuine interest in Chiron allows him to shake off the weight of his crippling loneliness. The relationship between Chiron and Kevin is complicated by the rules and expectations of their world, as in “Brokeback,” but the simplicity of their connectedness to each other is profoundly beautiful. Masculinity also plays a similar role in “Moonlight” like it did in “Brokeback.” Dominant masculinity is reaffirmed, as Chiron tries to emulate the hard exterior of powerful men as armor for his inner tenderness. The film doesn’t reject this form of masculinity, but challenges its validity and explores the complex negotiations of identity.
Unlike “Brokeback Mountain,” the gay narrative in “Moonlight” is textured by a gentle give-and-take of honesty and vulnerability. The film’s incredible win for Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars reflects a societal appreciation for intricate, introspective stories that reveal the realities of human experience. In “Moonlight,” the gay narrative is both the focus of the film and one of its many layers. The film marks the progression from a crucial and critical focus on sexuality to a dynamic and nuanced portrayal of a character who happens to be gay.
The most recent film to feature desire between two male characters is “Call Me by Your Name,” a breathtaking story of attraction and affection between Elio (Timothée Chalamet, “Lady Bird”) and Oliver (Armie Hammer, “Free Fire”). The tension between Elio and Oliver builds as a gradual avalanche, collecting itself slowly and ultimately barreling all at once. But unlike the hurried bouts of furious passion between Ennis and Jack in “Brokeback,” Elio and Oliver explore each other gently, slowly and tenderly. And while physicality plays a part in “Call Me by Your Name,” as in its predecessor, it takes the form of a gentle, pawing playfulness, similar to “Moonlight.”
The shading of the gay narrative in “Call Me by Your Name” is unprecedented in the canon of critically acclaimed films of its kind. The film doesn’t focus on characters wrestling with their sexuality and is simply about love and personhood and bodies. Masculinity is not emphasized, questioned or asserted, but is almost dismissed in favor of passion. The film is unconcerned with structuring a space in which two people can’t be together, and instead explores the equally heartbreaking forces of memory and feeling. “Call Me by Your Name” is a universal story about a human connection between two people who wholly love each other. The success of the film, its enormous presence in popular culture and the way fans worship and obsess over Chalmet and Hammer all speak to a societal shift in audiences who crave a story about an organic and beautiful love between two people. “Call Me by Your Name” isn’t a story about a gay relationship, but about a relationship in general, one that emphasizes the importance of feeling deeply.
Vulnerability is the guiding throughline of these three films. In each, characters must detach themselves from societal expectations and personal hesitations and relinquish themselves to the purity of love and desire. While each film handles this process in different ways, they collectively show how gay narratives are defined by the process of opening oneself up emotionally in order to share a selfless, tender and deep emotional connection with someone else. In “Brokeback Mountain,” vulnerability reveals the fragile masculinity of its characters who are trapped by an era that condemns their expression of love. In “Moonlight,” vulnerability is both Chiron’s weakest and strongest point; he struggles against it his whole life, but when he relinquishes himself to it, he finally finds peace and happiness. In “Call Me by Your Name,” vulnerability is celebrated, as the characters physically and emotionally explore each other in honest terms and celebrate the experience of feeling. The lasting presence and evolution of vulnerability in gay narratives emphasize the shifting ways in which audiences and filmmakers understand and portray the nuances of queer experiences.