Sony Pictures Classics (2017) 132 min. R
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenplay: James Ivory; Based on the novel by André Aciman
Cinematography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom; Editing: Walter Fasano
Production Design: Samuel Deshors; Art Direction: Roberta Federico; Set Decoration: Muriel Chinal, Sandro Piccarozzi & Violante Visconti di Modrone; Costumes: Giulia Piersanti
Stars: Timothée Chalamet (Elio Perlman), Armie Hammer (Oliver), Michael Stuhlbarg (Samuel Perlman), Amira Casar (Annella Perlman), Esther Garrel (Marzia), Victoire Du Bois (Chiara), Vanda Capriolo (Mafalda), Antonio Rimoldi (Anchise), André Aciman (Mounir), Peter Spears (Isaac)
Summer of love films set in sunny, foreign locales have been a hallmark of coming-of-age cinema for so long, at least as far back as movies like Three Coins in the Fountain, Roman Holiday, Summertime, Holiday for Lovers, and relatively more recent titles like A Little Romance, Enchanted April, Stealing Beauty, Under the Tuscan Sun, A Good Year, Mamma Mia! and Eat, Pray, Love, they’ve become somewhat passé. So much so that these stick a pin in the map movies now feel like displaced, modern descendants of E.M. Forster and Henry James. Americans abroad entries of more integrity, like The Talented Mr. Ripley, had to twist variations out of the theme in order to pull off the same premise.
Ripley was, appropriately enough, set in the ‘50s, the heyday for the genre following Europe’s liberation during WW2, and though the latest in that long proud line, Call Me by Your Name, from André Aciman’s 2007 novel, is of a more modern bent, set as it is in 1983, it still feels strangely dislodged in time, as vintage as a fine cask of wine distilled directly from the vineyard. But maybe the quaintness was meant to approximate the tone of the novel, which director Luca Guadagnino has described as “a Proustian book about remembering the past and indulging in the melancholy of lost things.” The moving screen version affects one emotionally in the same way. Far more than a simple coming-of-age film, it deepens as it unfolds, lingering with the viewer long after it’s over, like the lovely lines of a long lost poem.
This lushly passionate, elegiac movie concerns Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), a Jewish aspiring musician who finds himself, on the cusp of manhood in the summer of 1983, unexpectedly falling in love with Oliver (Armie Hammer) the new graduate resident staying with his family in their northern Italian villa. Conceived by a collective of erudite filmmakers with the most refined of tastes and discriminating of palates, the movie is a sensuous celebration of the arts – music, sculpture, dance, literature – set against the breathtaking splendors of the Italian countryside, an exquisite piece of filmmaking to be savored slowly. Call Me by Your Name is intended to cultivate us, awaken a spontaneous appreciation for art, love, food and the simple, sensual pleasures in life.
Maybe it takes an Italian, steeped in history and still surrounded by the glories of past romantic ages, to fully bring out our finer sensibilities. Impressionistic landscapes, movements by classical composers, fruit still lifes abound, infusing the picture and awakening something long dormant in the spectator, drawing our artistic appreciation back to the surface where it can overwhelm us in a rush of emotions, as it did Ingrid Bergman in Journey to Italy (1954), eons of history passionately speaking to us across the centuries. Call Me by Your Name, which the credits say has been awarded the ‘Certificate of Cultural Relevance,’ is classy moviemaking which deserves to be ranked among the fine art it celebrates. Like poet laureates, the filmmakers want to raise our own poetic consciousness by instilling in us their love of the arts. Surrounding itself with antiquities, all the accumulated clutter of the past, Call Me by Your Name has been fairly drowned in gentrified taste, in a manner intended to elevate the material, removing it from the everyday and immortalizing it, like a heavenly body among the constellations. And given the rapturous response from critics, this approach seems to have succeeded, despite the fact that, divested of its sensitively handled high concept, Call Me by Your Name harkens back to the oldest of dirty Canterbury Tales concerning traveling wayfarers taking wily sexual advantage of the precocious progeny of the house in which they’re staying, practically under the very noses of their generous hosts, putting the notion of “what’s mine is yours” in a whole new perspective. It’s a punch line that stretches at least as far back as Petronius’ Satyricon, back to those very ancient times the art treasures here are purloined from.
So we’re treated to art slides of classic sculpture, Greco-Roman nudes, a rather antiquated idea itself of what turns gay guys on, the shimmering, sweltering bathhouse atmosphere creating a homoerotic ambiance that can’t help but quicken the blood, until these oversexed striplings just sort of slip and slide into one other, like well-oiled Greek wrestlers. Oliver and Elio both find delight in running their hands over the ancient, lifesized statue of an Athenian boxer dredged up from the ocean floor, intending to remind audiences that artists have been glorifying the beauty of the male form since time immemorial, Call Me by Your Name being no exception. As he works with Elio’s father, cataloguing these art treasures, images of finely sculpted men start dancing in Oliver’s head. It becomes a humorous joke the film is full in on as we cut between Elio anxiously awaiting his midnight rendezvous with Oliver, and his excited father’s commentary on the works he’s unearthed, which serve to charge up the listening grad student entertaining designs on his son. As he notes, “Muscles are firm. Look at his stomach for example. Look, not a straight line in these statues, they’re all curved. And so nonchalant. Hence their ageless ambiguity. As if they’re daring you to desire them.” The way this movie would have it, homoerotism is the prerogative of academia and the intelligentsia, as though a long submerged, lost secret of the ancients had risen back to the surface, one that only advanced, aesthetic study can make accessible to the enlightened. The loss of one’s cherry becomes an almost esoteric rite of passage here, literally equivocated with the ravishment of fruit, and if it weren’t for the very earthy, carnal hunger and genuinely tender, throbbing ache evident at Call Me by Your Name’s core, this would be a pretty heady concept to get one’s mind around.
The classical master–apprentice relationship in the arts has such a long standing tradition behind it, it’s surely one of the reasons why Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), a classics scholar himself, is less inclined to see his son’s questionable relationship with Oliver in a detrimental light (“In my place most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, pray their sons land on their feet. But I am not such a parent… How you live your life is your business…”). The age discrepancy between these lovers is downplayed by making Oliver (who was in his mid-twenties in the novel, while actor Armie Hammer was pushing thirty at the time of filming) a grad student, and the teenage Elio a precocious prodigy wise beyond his years (“Is there anything you don’t know?”). But the simple disparity between their physical forms when entwined in one another’s arms, like Cupid and Psyche, with the fairly hulking 6’ 5” Hammer paired with the barely legal Chalamet, who doesn’t look a day over fourteen on camera (subconsciously wishing to divest himself of his proverbial beard, he makes a show of shaving the wisps of a nonexistent mustache and blows on his underarm hair in a way that tells us it’s still new enough to fascinate him), tends to plink at something submerged in our own psychosexual psyche. It delves into far more ancient mores regarding boy love, viewed by the Greek culture whose statues they study, as a mentorship necessary to usher youths into manhood, a transitional stage fundamental to one’s healthy development. Brazenly daring viewers to call this by its name, such visuals tend to play directly into the most prevalent prejudices weaponized by the evangelical right (especially in the early ‘80s) to drum up fear and hatred against the gay community. But the movie discreetly ignores the eyebrows it raises while still, by design or happenstance, visually cross referencing our far more junky pop cultural memories of such earlier Italian standard bearers as Death in Venice and Fellini’s Satyricon, in which tempting, underage Lolitas led strong men astray. With his ravishingly inky mop of uncombed Renaissance ringlets, Guadagnino paints Chalamet, who appears just a slip of a boy, with the slight waifish frame of some French gamin, as though he were a tantalizing urchin stepped off a Caravaggio canvas, the sort to make even good men go wrong. He’s kept in a perpetual state of half undress for the most part, as the camera lingers at appreciative length over his slim and gracile figure, as he slips on his swim trunks or leans over the bed to present a fetching posterior view in his denim cutoffs.
Though Oliver is also carrying on with a girl Elio’s own age without anyone making a fuss, audiences have been preconditioned by this point to see any relations between older and younger male partners as sexually predatory in some way. However, the romance lying at the heart of Call Me by Your Name is never less than fully consensual, with a self-aware Elio instigating everything so that the adult can’t be held accountable. And when Oliver stops fending off his own desires and finally succumbs to Elio’s advances, he still makes a point to gain his verbal consent before sleeping with him, confirming “This will make you happy?,” as a way of ascertaining that Elio is in no way being coerced, and that he is, instead being done a favor. The film itself openly raises this same sociologically nettlesome issue at several points along the way however, such as when Elio asks why Oliver never gave him a sign that he was interested, and he’s assured “I did. Remember when we were playing volleyball and I touched you, just to show you I liked you. The way you reacted made me feel like I molested you,” so it’s a valid criticism, inviting further comment. Yet Call Me by Your Name believes it’s taking the high road by never seriously addressing the fact that an adult is having sex with a minor here. And it’s not as though the men themselves were not fully aware that what they’re doing is against the law by our cultural standards, as Elio attests “It’s not like I’m gonna tell anyone you — you’re not gonna be like in any trouble.” The implication being, of course, that Oliver very well could. Discomfited by Elio’s post-coital behavior for instance, he’s on his guard, and sensing a trap somewhere confronts him with the fear that “You gonna hold what happened last night against me?,” ruining his life and sabotaging his prospects for a doctoral candidacy. Insulating them in their academic bubble, the film can remain safely removed from the workaday world, not just of casual homophobia, but even the slightest inference of disapproval at the appropriateness of this relationship. So it feels almost beside the point to remind us of the sort of reality that might intrude upon their hazy, romantic dream, as Oliver and Elio fleetingly reach to hold hands walking down the street, but acknowledge the necessity to maintain decorum in public (“I would kiss you if I could.”). Oliver may wring his hands over the possibility that he might have damaged the underage Elio’s psychosexual development in some way (“… I hate the thought that maybe I may have messed you up.”), but Call Me by Your Name is daring in depicting what is, for all intents and purposes statutory rape from our vantage (which is why American Oliver is so much more hesitant about engaging in the affair than Elio, the age of legal consent in Italy being fourteen at the time), without having anyone involved pay penance, the filmmakers wishing to depict a gay affair that was positive and mutually beneficial for both parties, a rarity on screen. As Oliver states “I don’t want either of us to pay for this one way or another.” And yet, one can’t help asking if Call Me by Your Name’s assertion that desire transgresses all boundaries arbitrarily drawn up by God and man, doesn’t deserve more discussion, especially at this particular moment in our national discourse, where we’re publicly debating issues involving the appropriateness of middle-aged men of all sexual persuasions, pursuing romantic interests still in their teens. When Oliver goes out of his way to avoid Elio and advises him to “grow up” in that note he leaves him, there’s a layered meaning to such counsel, the suggestion being that he’s still too young for adults to diddle about with. But being underage clearly isn’t going to stop Elio from exploring his sexuality as often as he can, regardless of who or what it’s with. So the simple point the film makes is that he shouldn’t suppress his desires, hoping they’ll go away, or try to re-channel them in more socially acceptable directions, as he does by dating Marzia. By aggressively pursuing his romantic interest in Oliver, ‘growing up’ is precisely what Elio is trying to do, bravely usher himself into manhood by gaining carnal knowledge. And it’s this bold, uncompromising approach to the boy’s burgeoning sexuality, more frequently treated by embarrassed filmmakers as a subject fit only for sophomoric slapstick, that sets the film outside the standard scope of far more puritanical American cinema.
As Elio’s father observes of his son’s shattering, life-altering affair, Call Me by Your Name, for all its pedagogical aspirations, has everything and nothing to do with intelligence. Instead this final and, based on the level of critical love showered upon it by awarding bodies, one would assume the best installment in director Luca Guadagnino’s “desire” based trilogy (following I Am Love and A Bigger Splash), is all about life’s sensual, animal hungers, the unquenchable drive of primal longing, the sort of craving need which will continually rise to the surface, despite every civilized effort to submerge and sate it. Being Guadagnino’s final chapter on the theme (though sequels to the film itself, after the manner of François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series, are already being bandied about), Call Me by Your Name has been meticulously crafted with especial care and reverence, in the very spirit of love itself, succeeding in capturing both its elusive mystery and bittersweet afterburn.
Call Me by Your Name was adapted and co-produced by James Ivory, whose films made in tandem with Ismail Merchant were hallmarked by a similarly discreet, tasteful tonal quality. His classic version of A Room with a View, which presented highbrow tastes in art and culture in a way accessible enough to make the film Merchant Ivory’s first major crossover success, was also about the sexual awakening of first love set amid the Italian ruins, and dealt with a very similar theme concerning the repressive fear of expressing yourself, of openly acknowledging one’s own desire. That film also used Italy in the same manner as Guadagnino does here, depicting it as a liberating landscape capable of spurring spontaneous bursts of passion in even the most staid and emotionally suppressed of tourists. When Oliver, in his billowy white shirt and Elio, with his dark, romantic locks, lay in that field together, it evokes a clear visual allusion to the first time Julian Sands kissed Helena Bonham Carter, setting the earlier film spiraling.
In addition, Ivory appears to have carried over quite a few remembrances of his follow-up E.M. Forster adaptation Maurice, about a closeted Victorian’s taboo romance with his gardener, threading them throughout proceedings. So in its way Call Me by Your Name can be appreciated as a kind of emotional recall of early ‘80s Merchant Ivory, the very time frame in which the picture itself is set. Ivory declined to co-direct, as originally intended however, so that there would be no conflicts in the vision for the movie. But Call My by Your Name still feels pretty evenly divided between deserving accreditation as an auteur piece for its screenwriter, as much as for its director – a seamless mingling of artistic minds. Guadagnino’s visceral passions provide perfect counterbalance to Ivory’s hidebound artistry. Like the best of Merchant Ivory, a playful sense of fun pervades the picture, enlivening what could have been a cold and dull tour of period museum pieces.
The film abounds in generous riches, from Ivory’s intelligently cadenced, fluently multi-lingual screenplay, full of gentle wit and a deep appreciation for the arts, particularly the literary power of the written word, to the well selected music, augmented with several original tracks by singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, which compensates for the film’s lacking a sweepingly romantic original score, and the ravishing cinematography of Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, palpably capturing the spirit of a summer abroad, while taking full advantage of the bounteous beauty of northern Italy’s warm, inviting clime. It may have been poet Antonia Pozzi’s descriptive passages, as much as the bucolic landscapes of Bertolucci and Renoir, that influenced the lush photography, which reflects the director’s love for the locale in every frame.
According to Thea Lenarduzzi’s overview of Pozzi’s work, “These are poems about “frosty fields, silver trees, fair chrysanthemums”, about “Night’s falling”, sleep and “the final loophole / in the shadow”, as well as about winds that sweep across the foggy plains and high pastures she climbed… Longing and attrition are everywhere. When she is away from them, she craves the mountains only to quiver at their chill that “penetrates right to the wrists”. In winter, she writes of summer; in springtime, she evokes “the yellowed leaves of autumn” only to dread these signs of transition in “Premature Autumn”, written in August.” (https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/the-poems-of-antonia-pozzi/)
Curiously, the movie occasionally plays into the untoward perception of Italians as ardent, bombastic and overemotional as a people, like those avuncular relations who attend the luncheon where Elio gets his nosebleed. But it’s a depiction one can’t hold against it since the American character in treated in much the same stereotypical manner, with Armie Hammer’s presence tending to emphasize the foreign feel to the rest of the film. With its overseas financing, location shoot and international roster of talent, Call Me by Your Name retains the strong feel of a foreign film in emotional tempo and temperament. Yet, despite its polyglot production pool, which mirrors Elio’s description of his own household, with its smattering of nationalities (“Well, we are Jewish, but also American, Italian, French, somewhat atypical combination.”), the movie, much of whose dialogue is in Italian and French, has been artfully marketed to English-speaking audiences, keeping the closed captioning to a minimum. Translation isn’t really needed because Call Me by Your Name has been conceived in the Romance languages, the language of love.
The film’s lead, Timothée Chalamet, may be American as well, but the spelling of his name evidences so many fancy accent aigus he couldn’t be too many generations removed from frenchified origins (he’s Russian-Jewish on his mother’s side, French only on his father’s), just a short jaunt over the Alps from where the film is set. The movie opens with a misperception on our part, as his Elio dresses, apparently following an afternoon quickie with a girl, Marzia (Esther Garrel), who still lounges in his bed. Referring to the foreigner he’ll be forced to surrender his room to for the summer as the ‘usurper,’ the term links Oliver’s intrusive American presence to notions of imperialism and colonialism abroad, which is, in a sense, the very spirit in which he and Elio’s art historian father have come to Italy – intending to purloin the country of its priceless antique treasures, much as Oliver will further rob Elio of his most cherished possession, after stealing his room and taking up residence, like the billeted soldier of an occupying army.
By referring to the new arrival as a ‘usurper’ in this way however, Elio is really forecasting the fact that Oliver is soon to usurp Marzia’s place in his bed. And when the bicycling Oliver, on his way out of the courtyard, passes the bicycling Marzia on her way in, the movie strengthens the clear parallel between their dual positions in relation to Elio. Oliver even calls Marzia over when Elio shrinks from his touch during the volley ball match, so she can serve as surrogate by continuing to rub his shoulder, making the massage seem less sexually awkward. Elio and Marzia begin the film looking down into the courtyard on Oliver’s arrival, just as Elio and Oliver will be looking down the first night they sleep together, anxiously waiting for the guests to depart, with Oliver by this point having definitively ‘usurped’ Marzia’s place beside him. There’s a similar circular structure carried forward throughout the film. Just as Oliver skips dinner the first night he arrives, Elio will go missing (as his father remarks “I missed you at dinner last night.”) when he returns from his trip to Bergamo; while the film ends on Elio finally responding to his mother’s call to dinner. Elio throws over Marzia for another man, same as Oliver will throw him over for a woman. Marzia forgives Elio for breaking her heart, same as we assume Elio will forgive Oliver. Such smooth symmetry affords a pleasingly circular sense of closure to the director’s triangulated overview of human desires in his trilogy.
Elio’s growing pains during his summer in Italy are meant to afford him some emotional instruction, as they did Carey Mulligan in An Education (though she had to go clear across to France to learn the birds and bees), allowing him to gain some deeper insight into the ‘things that matter’ (“I know nothing Oliver…If you only knew how little I know about the things that matter.”). Having reached an impasse, where book knowledge isn’t enough to satisfy his curiosity anymore, he’s searching the older, more experienced graduate student for answers to puzzling questions he can’t talk to his parents about, despite their sympathetic ear, wanting Oliver to teach him the sort of things his professor father can’t. Oliver knows there’s a limit to what Elio, who offers to show him around (“So what is there to do in this town?”), can actually show him at his tender age, inducing him to abandon Elio to his own devices with a dismissive “Later!”
However, Elio senses there’s boundless things he wants Oliver to expose him to, all the mysteries of life and love he’s only read about in books, without ever experiencing firsthand. So it is that, despite being underage, he follows Oliver into a local bar he never knew existed in all the considerable time he’s spent in the area. A besotted Elio is inclined to follow Oliver around like a puppy in this manner, such as when he promptly abandons the pool after Oliver does, to pick fruit with his mother. Wanting to get to know him better, Elio’s deeply hurt each time Oliver accords him his standard, blasé brush off, the unfortunate precedent set on their initial introduction, when the exhausted traveler dismissed him from his own bedroom with a curt “Thanks. Later,” and unceremoniously fell asleep while an unaware Elio was still in the midst of talking to him.
Elio believes Oliver keeps absenting himself because he doesn’t like him, too innocent to suspect it’s because Oliver doesn’t trust himself around him. Feeling left out, believing he’s being treated abysmally, he reacts like a resentful tag along, too young to hang around the big boys. At that fleeting time in life when such emotions can actually coexist, his pique at Oliver’s purposely avoiding him seems an amusing mixture of temper tantrum to get his attention, and a fully matured spite at being scorned. Elio speaks with affectation, in a way that tells us he wants to be taken seriously, accepted as an equal in the adult world, yet still pulls typically bratty teenage scenes, when asked to play piano for instance, bristling at the maid Mafalda (Vanda Capriolo) when she advises his mother he’s too young to be out so late, or refusing to wear an unflattering shirt given as a gift by family friends. When he behaves in this manner, Elio’s precocious pretensions would probably put off the audience if we didn’t see the unhappiness beneath, the insecurity and fragile emotions he’s trying to hide but which come through nonetheless. So we understand why he behaves with such unseemly irritability when he feels he’s been stood up for dinner, the place that had been set for Oliver, right beside him, being peremptorily cleared away. Prompted to ask, with familiarly French disdain, if anyone else finds this American, who towers over him, looking down on him, to be rude and boorish, bad mouthing his casual air as flippancy and arrogance, predicting “Just watch, this is how he’ll say goodbye to us when the time comes, with his ‘Later’.” What we can’t quite understand however is why his father would characterize Oliver as ‘shy,’ not an impression we ever got. Instead, we’re far more inclined to agree with Elio ourselves.
Yet despite Oliver’s less attractive features (showboating during that volleyball match, reveling in being the center of attention, and unceremoniously swiping the bottled water Elio was handing a friend), Elio is constantly being assailed by ambient references to “how cute he is,” his “movie star” looks and “who wouldn’t want to be in her shoes” when Chiara (Victoire Du Bois), a local girl with a crush on Oliver, dances with him at an outdoor bandstand. All the surrounding talk seems subliminally intended to implant such thoughts in Elio’s own mind, keeping him thinking about Oliver and his undeniable attractiveness. It’s an empirical observation he’ll later freely acknowledge when Chiara stops beneath his window to chat, mouthing her own thoughts that “He’s good-looking too.”
Unaware that feelings of love frequently manifest themselves in terms of conflict, Elio says he may grow to hate Oliver, resenting being brushed aside by someone he’d like to have a closer relationship with, whether he realizes at the time it will lead to actual relations. This wandering wayfarer has shaken up his dull existence (as Sufjan Stevens’ lovely, melancholic new rendition of “Futile Devices” states, “But you are the life/I needed all along.”), the stranger’s arrival drawing forth feelings in him he didn’t know he had. It’s why Elio spends a restless night tossing and turning, wondering where the absent Oliver is, their adjoining rooms never seeming so lonely as his straying hand wanders below the waistband of his boxers. Sharing such close quarters forces them into repeated proximity to one another, so that they’re practically intimate before they get to know each other intimately. Elio can’t even get out of his room without going through the communal bathroom, so the two are constantly bumping into each other in various states of undress. They invade one another’s privacy time and again without even knocking, leaving Elio to think up embarrassing excuses as to why he can’t get out of bed at the moment, when Oliver bursts in on him masturbating. Their swimming trunks are even draped around the tub to dry as if they were delicates or sheers. They might have picked up each other’s scent, as when Elio pulls Oliver’s shorts over his head or, when playing with his arm pits, editor Walter Fasano cuts to a shot of an approaching Oliver similarly wiping the sweat from his own. They’ve reached such a comfortable degree of intimacy by this point, when they do start sleeping together it seems the perfect cohabitating arrangement, affording them direct access to one another and complete privacy from the rest of the household, a secluded Eden where they can lock out the world.
Failing to recognize his true desires for what they are at first, all Elio is sure of is that, having outgrown the family circle, he feels hemmed in by it. Wanting to escape and expand his horizons, he’s beating his wings against the cage bars closing him in, same way the girl Chalamet played opposite in Lady Bird was. An emotionally cross storm cloud reacting to even the most casual addresses with snappish sneers, snarls or snide remarks (“You’re spoiling everyone’s fun,” he’s cautioned), Elio is reduced to a depressed, mopey wet blanket whenever Oliver isn’t around to offer him exciting glimpses of another life. Despite his protests to the contrary (“You just have to relax a little” – “I am relaxed.”), Elio is as overwound as his Jewfro. So when Oliver attempts to massage that knot of tension out of the intensely embarrassed Elio’s shoulder with some hands on action and a familiar pickup line (“Trust me. I’m about to be a doctor.”), out in the open, in front of everybody, it almost seems a legitimate, homeopathic effort to get him to loosen up a little, as much as the touchy feely advance Elio takes it for.
Displaying the casual noblesse oblige of the entitled American abroad, with his laid back, mellow, West Coast manner, Oliver has been brought into the life of this studious, inhibited, overachieving son of prestigious East Coast academics, specifically to lighten the burden he’s carrying on his shoulders by bringing him out. Amid the open and boundless expanse of the Italian countryside, this American interloper appears to be liberating Europe all over again, with Elio accepting his sexuality same as he’s induced to embrace his Jewish heritage. Spying the Star of David pendant dangling beneath Oliver’s shirt, teasingly unbuttoned just low enough to draw furtive eyes, Elio is attracted to him for this specific reason, sensing an immediate kinship, fellow feeling for the only other Jew he’s encountered in the area (“Besides my family, you’re probably the only other Jew to set foot in this town.” – “I’m from a small town in New England. I know what it’s like being the odd Jew out.”).
So Oliver’s continual rebuffs are doubly smarting. Elio feels he’s being shut out, just as Oliver will literally shut the bathroom door separating their rooms when he returns from his late night of carousing. The slight, dark Elio, prone to allergies and nosebleeds, is being excluded same way his people always have been by the sort of big, blond, gentiles Oliver resembles. The older generation in this country, like that aged woman who considerately offers them water while bicycling, still keep portraits of Mussolini just out of open sight, and the film uses this submerged Italian history coursing just beneath the surface to draw a subtle correlation between the historically criminalized communities of Jews and gays. Even non-practicing Jews like the Perlmans were forced into ‘hiding’ during the Holocaust, and afterward chose to subsume their heritage to more easily assimilate into mainstream society, for fear of being singled out and persecuted all over again (“My mother says we are Jews of discretion.”).
Similarly, closeted gays like Elio and Oliver present a false face to the world for fear of persecution, carrying on romances with women for the sake of propriety, while keeping their true desires for one another well hidden, much as Elio will conceal his secret sins in that attic hideaway, like a latter day Anne Frank. Linking these two historically oppressed and marginalized minorities, both of whom found their way into the camps, makes us understand why Elio and Oliver would be so drawn together, and also why they might feel it prudent to conceal that very attraction. Once Elio accepts his sexuality, coming out to Oliver, it’s no coincidence he again begins sporting the same Star of David pendant Oliver himself has always proudly displayed, one Elio had put aside long ago (“I used to have one of these…”), submersing his identity as a Jew, same as he had as a homosexual. No longer wishing to deny his true self, when swimming in the river now, holding the gold chain in his mouth like a Labrador Retriever, it’s clear that all his feelings are on the surface, that Elio no longer feels the need to conceal who he is. He’s willing to chance wearing his vulnerable heart on his sleeve, where it’s exposed and can more easily be broken.
Elio’s understanding parents observe everything but have the discretion to say nothing, letting their son stumble through and explore the haunting experience of first love on his own, waiting patiently in the wings until needed, to offer a soft place for Icarus to fall. They just want Elio to be happy, and if Oliver can make him so, they love him enough to let him go. As his mother advises the disapproving maid, “Let him do his own thing.” When Elio reveals “they know about us” at the end, even Oliver admits “I figured,” making it clear that only Elio, like most kids who underestimate their parents’ guidance, was oblivious that everyone around him was fully aware of what was happening, silently shepherding and chaperoning him into adulthood. The fact that his parents quietly approve, recognizing the appreciable benefits the affair is having on their son, isn’t a perspective you’d find in many coming-of-age movies made in this country.
So the film further distinguishes itself in this rather remarkably progressive depiction of nurturing care. Would it were everyone could experience such a gently supportive coming out. Oliver is right in telling Elio how lucky he is to have them (“My father would’ve carted me off to a correctional facility.”). Confirming that she no longer wants her son to hide who he is, Elio’s perceptive mother (Amira Casar) pats the long discarded Star of David necklace he’s draped over his heart, and noticing its similarity to Oliver’s own, gently prods “You like him, don’t you?” At this Elio becomes dead serious, his face dropping into the same sort of piercing gaze it will wear when talking with his father at the end, fishing for her confirmation that she believes Oliver likes him too (more than he thinks), and swelling with pride when she reveals he told her as much. Such affirmation for this kid without much self-confidence seems almost as elating as that euphoric entry he’d scribbled in his journal “I was too HARSH when I told him I thought he hated Bach… I thought he didn’t like ME.” It’s Elio’s mother who will subtly suggest to her husband that their son accompany Oliver during the final leg of his journey to Bergamo, making it possible for them to spend their final days alone together (“Maybe it could be nice for the two of them to get away for a couple of days, no? What do you think?”). And, hearing the distress in his voice, she’ll drive all the way to Clusone to pick Elio up at the train station following Oliver’s departure, when he’s too devastated to travel home by himself, laying a sympathetic hand on his face as they return along the same leafy lanes the men once rode their bicycles down. The female principals in the cast haven’t received anywhere near the same level of critical acclaim as the men, which is unfortunate because they’re playing at the same level. Both Casar and Esther Garrel as Marzia are exceptional.
Elio’s father assures his son that his wife wasn’t aware of what was going on, though we’ve seen she’s been more attuned all along to what’s really taking place under her roof than any of the men, and are actually more surprised that this seemingly wooly headed, absent minded professor had also been fully cognizant. People will surprise you. Guadagnino has said he considers the film an “homage to fathers,” not just the mentoring relationship between the older Oliver, who ushers young Elio out of his innocence, but in the moving tribute to parental wisdom embedded in that heart to heart Elio has with his dad when he returns home. This scene, filmed in just two takes, each with a different emotional timbre, is a tear-jerking showstopper for ubiquitous actor Michael Stuhlbarg (who resembles a cross between Mandy Patinkin and Robin Williams here), as he tells his son how rare the special relationship he had with Oliver was and how much he envies him the experience. He appears to have captured the rabbinical wisdom of the ages, radiating an understanding warmth and generosity of spirit that knows no judgment. The significant point Call Me by Your Name makes of both Oliver and Elio being Jewish, helps substantiate the stress the film places on study, sculpture, history, music, the high arts, reminding one of the importance Jewish culture itself has traditionally placed on learning and scholastic achievement in order to be more readily assimilated. Yet when Elio’s father, who wants his son to be a credit to him, gives his residents that etymological trial by fire, forcing them to explain the root of the word apricot, he draws an anachronistic sign of the cross as blessing on them if they pass muster.
Something of a musical prodigy, Elio transcribes the notes on paper as he listens to his Walkman, and it’s Oliver’s appreciation of the art form that allows the two men to move past their personal animosity and bond. When Oliver compliments Elio’s skill at playing a difficult composition by Bach on his guitar (the same instrument Chalamet strummed in Lady Bird), it gives Elio the inroad he needs to flip the disempowering dynamics of their budding relationship, proudly forcing Oliver to follow him around for the first time. Subsequently he will even leave him in the dust (“Let’s go, American!”), after expressing his feelings at the same town square where Oliver had earlier abandoned him during their initial outing. Leading the bull by the horns, he’s now able to show Oliver truly unexplored territory, into which he’ll ultimately prove too fearful to tread.
Feeling bereft, Elio had been resentful about being forced to play for his family before, but now purposefully shows off for Oliver, trying to impress him by playing the same arrangement the way Liszt or Busoni would have if they’d altered Bach’s version, to show him just how gifted he is, demonstrate he’s worth getting to know better. In Merchant Ivory’s A Room with a View, the repressed lead character Lucy Honeychurch could only express her pent up passions through the piano, the way she played betraying to listeners that there was a volcano inside, and I imagine that there’s a similar implication in Elio’s passionate playing here (and, when lost in the moment, the humorously impassioned facial expressions of Chalamet, who has studied piano for years, are priceless). When Oliver walks back into the house for instance, the first night they sleep together, the rhythm of Elio’s recital noticeably picks up, as his heart skips a beat.
In truth Elio says all he needs to by tickling the ivories, expressing himself in the universal language, his music being the food of love, a siren song leading the men to later make their own beautiful music together. Being too afraid to express his feelings verbally, the same way he pounds out his pent up passions on the piano, Elio acknowledges that “I’m a mess.” This inhibited kid keeps so much bottled up that all his inner turmoil spills out in nosebleeds, and it’s no coincidence that when Oliver finds him applying an ice pack it’s in the deepest recess of a closet-like alcove. Though Elio denies it, Oliver intuitively realizes “That wasn’t my fault, right?,” and the first night they sleep together, seeks to reassure himself that the thrill isn’t going to go to Elio’s head (“… you’re not gonna get a nose bleed on me are you?”). Significantly, however, these nose bleeds disappear entirely after this turning point in the men’s relationship, with Elio having released everything he’d been holding inside. Music has been made a vital ingredient in the movie’s design and the carefully arranged score has been liltingly calibrated to range from classical pieces and piano concertos to the synthesized sounds of the early ‘80s, with selections that further express the characters or comment on their situation. With a hilarious electric slide (a move that Chalamet will repeat, like an ever endearing reprise, throughout the film to signal Elio’s level of elation), he glides onto the dance floor in a way initially intended to make us think he’s making a beeline for Oliver, who he’s been admiring from afar. Oliver remains oblivious to Elio’s presence however, spazzing out as he is to The Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” a telling title that will play a pivotal part in proceedings. Though it’s his attraction to Oliver which initially draws him to the dance floor, Elio is content just to remain in his immediate vicinity, basking in his idol’s shadow, ostensibly dancing with Marzia for show, much as he’ll later sleep with her, attempting to displace his desire for the other man. This type of classic displacement psychology, encapsulated in the scene where Oliver tries to distract Elio from the pain of his nosebleed by massaging his foot, is repeatedly evidenced in the men’s behavior as their relationship evolves, carrying on with women in order to make each other jealous, or to prove something to themselves. It’s an internalized form of conversion therapy.
While it was this ‘usurper,’ who was identified upon introduction as destined to replace Marzia in Elio’s bed, she assumes Elio invites her for a midnight swim on the rebound, asking “Are you with me because you’re mad at Chiara…” and then getting warmer, “because of him… of Oliver,” which of course he is after watching them dancing the night away together. Correctly guessing at Elio’s true motives, she misconstrues the situation same as we had at the beginning, believing it’s Chiara he’s trying to make jealous, rather than Oliver, the actual object of his affection.
The film amuses itself by overemphasizing the point the subsequent morning, as Elio proudly boasts in a two-shot, with Oliver sitting right beside him, “We almost had sex last night –” then for clarification, “Marzia and me.” But the declaration is as much for Oliver’s benefit as a play on words for ours, a sly attempt to make him envy what he’s missing, payback for the way it made Elio feel to watch Oliver dancing with someone else, while desiring to be in his partner’s shoes himself. This amusingly darting competition will continue when Chiara subsequently stops by the villa, and only half joking asks if Elio would like to help hook her up with Oliver, to which he honestly answers “No,” with unusual candor for someone who rarely says what’s actually on his mind.
Yet despite his personal spite, Elio still tries to test Oliver, as his father had before him, pushing him in Chiara’s direction by telling him what a well formed figure she has, to see how far he’s willing to take the physical side of their relationship before backing off (“You trying to get me to like her?” – “What would be the harm in that?”), though Oliver sees through the ruse. Shooting a look that could kill at the departing girl, after suffering agonies watching her shamelessly canoodle with his inamorato, it gives Elio, who attempts to hide his devious intentions behind his Risky Business sunglasses, especial pleasure to force Oliver to sit in the back with him on the ride to Lake Garda. Yet his father, sensing the tension between the men, asks “What’s going on, boys?”, a question they’d probably all like an answer to, clearing up the ambiguity of the situation. Attempting to mend the rift that’s opened between them, he separates the two, like children who can’t play nice together, pulling Oliver back up front, to Elio’s bemused disbelief, his astonished exclamation “What?” sounding amusingly gummed up, like a Yiddish de Niro. Still trying to make him jealous at the dig site, Elio darts out from behind a column to embrace the local archaeologist before Oliver can even be introduced. It’s immature Elio himself however who will prove the bigger man by declaring a cessation of hostilities (“Truce?”), extending Oliver an olive branch by shaking the hand of the cast iron statue he’s holding.
Call Me by Your Name succeeds in creating a consistent homoerotic haze with these lightly muscled men laying around in the briefest of shorts, as the lazy summer sun tans their olive skin, visuals that tend to evoke the paintings of David Hockney. The actors must have been shriveled as prunes once principal photography wrapped, and it’s the repetition of such scenes that gives the movie its sense of languor. But in all honesty these intellectuals’ privileged lifestyle of sunning and swimming serves a clear thematic through line. In A Room with a View it was a swimming hole skinny dip that offered the only sense of respite from social constraint once the English characters returned from their Italian sojourn, and it appears that a similar thought was in Ivory’s mind here. Call Me by Your Name is also about sexual liberation, and water clearly represents something essential to Guadagnino, with his subtextual theme concerning desires long suppressed and submerged rising back to the conscious surface. It’s the men’s attempt to keep their own desires submerged, by not acknowledging them, that sets the movie into sensual vibration as they dance around one another, trying not to divulge the feelings welling up between them. Call Me by Your Name is all about finding the courage to verbally express what’s inside, so much of what the characters feel and experience along the way isn’t put into words, meaning a vast majority of the movie plays out in silence, with many longing glances and averted eyes. According to Guadagnino, “Words are part of what’s going on, but it’s not necessarily what’s going on underneath. I think this film celebrates the underneath.”
Things ‘submerged,’ beneath the surface, is the primary theme of Call Me by Your Name, with its endless scenes of spigots, fountains, swimming pools, rivers, oceans, waterfalls. So it tracks that one of the movie’s signifying moments involves that long sunk, cast iron bronze being raised from the briny deep, breaking the surface in sensual slow motion to signal the import, leading Elio’s father to muse “it’s not what has been dug up, it’s what has been brought up, out of the water.” It’s this all-important event, indication that the men’s deep-sixed desires have now risen from the Freudian depths, that allows them to begin openly acknowledging the physical beauty of the male form, Oliver running his fingers over the statue’s lips in a sensual caress, similar to the way he later will with Elio in that field, as if he were Pygmalion and the statue come to life.
Fairly inundated by the homoeroticism of Grecian art, Oliver, who had earlier rolled into the pool face down in embarrassment after openly revealing that Elio’s words were the “kindest thing anybody has said to me in months,” now can’t help but succumb to his own long submerged desires, unconsciously revealing his body to Elio when he slips on his trunks or shows him the wound in his side. Tellingly, when the men subsequently go for a swim to celebrate their find, it serves as the first time we hear Elio and Oliver call out each other’s names, as if playing Marco Polo, an exchange that will soon become their own special term of endearment. And when their romance is at its euphoric peak, they manage to find a cascading waterfall to symbolize their own raging desires and torrential love. These watery metaphors may begin to be further unraveled in Oliver’s treatise on the meaning of the river’s flow buried in that book on Cosmic Fragments (“The meaning of the river flowing is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice but that some things stay the same only by changing…”).
Call Me By Your Name starts to deepen into something truly special during the lovely scene where Elio’s little family gathers for some reading time during a rainstorm, fully bringing the power of the spoken word home to us, stressing the importance of sharing your feelings, of speaking out rather than pining away. As Elio rests his head on his father’s lap, his mother translates a 16th ct. French romance about a tongue-tied knight rendered speechless by love, and the princess he can’t declare his feelings for. Addressing Elio’s present predicament with piercing directness, the film raises the central question “Is it better to speak or to die?,” as the lights go ominously out, like the final flicker of a fading hope. Introverted Elio, a sweet, sensitive soul who lacks confidence in himself (“All I have to do is find the courage to reach out and touch.”), believes he’ll never have the courage to ask a question like that. But despite his own self-doubts, his father knows him better than he knows himself, encouraging him with “I doubt that,” and then, sensing a more profound pain, “…you know you can always talk to us.” To Jews in an Italy still haunted by all those voices that remained silenced rather than raised in remonstration during the Holocaust, the significance of speaking out must assume added importance.
Sharing this fable with Oliver, the camera captures him in an extreme foreground close-up with Elio seated behind, the thoughts playing across his face leaving us in no doubt that Oliver, who has such an ear for the way Elio expresses himself through music, and earlier intuited that they might share the same signifying ‘allergy,’ is fully capable of reading between the lines of what he’s really trying to say, discerning his true meaning. By casting their situation in these analogous fairytale terms, Guadagnino overlays it with an air of midsummer night enchantment, as he does when Oliver instructs Elio to meet him on the balcony at midnight, that magical hour and setting invoking connotations of both Romeo and Juliet and “Cinderella,” much as Oliver will when he kisses Elio’s foot (Armie Hammer already played Prince Charming in Mirror, Mirror). Set “somewhere in northern Italy,” the unspecified universality of the locale adds to the fairytale quality still further. But there’s a problem here. While Oliver is cast in the part of the fairytale princess in this analogy, suggesting that Elio sees him as ‘royalty’ and by comparison, out of his league, it’s actually Elio himself who, like Sleeping Beauty, wishes to be awakened by true love’s kiss to full responsive life for the first time. He wants knight in shining armor Oliver to rescue him, just like the princesses in most fairy tales.
There’s an internal emotional battle raging inside Elio that no one knows about, any more than Oliver has ever heard of the WW1 Battle of Piave, commemorated by a monument in the town square. And when the camera lingers over it as Elio finally comes out, finding the nerve he never thought he’d have to openly express his true feelings for Oliver (“I thought you should know… I wanted you to know. Because there’s no one else I can say this to but you.”), it’s clear that we’re meant to admire valor that is, in its own personalized context, just as heroic as what it must have taken those brave soldiers to put their lives on the line for their country. The loaded guns Elio is facing here are comprised of all the societal institutions firmly arrayed against him and happiness, though I can’t quite grasp the importance of the cross atop the cathedral Jewish Elio’s gaze subsequently lights upon; the Church may disapprove, but certainly Judaism has its own, even longer standing strictures against such things.
This storm of emotions is transmitted clearly to audiences thanks to Chalamet, the wounded, bruised heart of this movie, and all the more surprising for coming from a relatively obscure young actor without much of a track record onscreen. He was recognized as a promising up-and-comer when he played in Prodigal Son on stage, appeared in Homeland on Showtime, and won good notices in the indie Miss Stevens (2016), but has probably been seen by more people in the thankless role of the younger Casey Affleck in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. He’s currently on view exercising his French accent in the Christian Bale Western Hostiles, and made a moderate impression as the wealthy, burnout rocker Saoirse Ronan fell for in Lady Bird, 2017’s other great coming-of-age movie. And yet every crushing emotion of first love, true love, a love too perfect to last, is sounded in his performance with understated, poignant eloquence.
The dedicated Chalamet, who learned Italian, guitar and advanced piano for the role, gets so many things just right, so many emotions spot on – the subtly conveyed hurt, the frustrating inability to share your pain even with the supportive sort of family Elio has, the displaced desires, the bereft feeling when away from the one you love and obsessive lack of focus on anything else, the inability to find joy in the simple things you once did, the petty back and forth games of one upmanship to express your pique, the rapturous joy when everything in life seems to be just beginning (Elio candidly confessing as they lay in the fields of grass together “I love this, Oliver… everything.” – “Us, you mean?” – “Eh, it’s not bad, it’s not bad.”), and the sense of utter devastation when it all falls apart. Like concerned parents, viewers become very protective of the character.
With the vulnerable young Chalamet in the part, we want to shield him from the inevitable heartbreak to come. This is a delicately shaded turn, definitively earmarking the actor as a burning talent. With a frequently dazed expression, dozey eyes that seem to blink independently of one another, then sort of roll heavenward when perturbed, and a tendency to chew at the corners of his mouth if distracted, Chalamet bears cursory traces of other young actors of his generation, Miles Teller at times, Shia LeBouf (who was considered for the role at one point!) and Freddie Highmore at others. But as evidenced by his spiritually revelatory work, Chalamet is in possession of a mercurial skill all his own that director Guadagnino has managed to fully draw out. It’s rare and refreshing to see a young actor this comfortable with being so messily emotional onscreen; this is soul searing stuff.
He can make his Elio delightfully coltish and gauche one moment, expressing his delight by twirling about before happily falling on the bed for instance, letting Chiara and Marzia baby him when he gets his nosebleed, or curling up in his father’s lap while his mother reads him a bedtime story, and the next, sexually aware and amatory in an almost frighteningly direct way, swaying seductively as he assures Oliver that he is indeed saying what he thinks he’s saying, raising Oliver’s letter to brush across his lips in a ghostly kiss, as he later will the fingers that had just been holding Oliver’s hand the instant they unclasp, or sensually biting at the rag he’d used to stop his nosebleed while Oliver massages his foot.
Alone in the deserted villa, Chalamet has a rather astonishing, enigmatic scene that ranks right up there with his infamous peach encounter, where he wanders, wordlessly and furtively for fear of being caught snooping, between his room and Oliver’s empty, windswept chamber, missing him, missing his old room. Intrigued by Oliver’s swim trunks, he mindlessly picks them up, places them over his head and, inhaling deeply, haunches up on all fours and sort of rocks back and forth, appearing on the verge of sexual ecstasy without once seeming fully aware of what he’s doing, while we pray he comes to his senses and collects himself before he gets caught in such an awkwardly intimate solo moment again. Repeatedly caught out engaging in such naughty behavior, such as when Oliver walks in on him beating off, asks what he’s thinking about in the pool, what he’s doing when they play footsie before sleeping together, what happened with that peach in the attic, sexually curious Elio’s pat response is always a very immature, standard issue “Nothing.”
But though his Elio does finally find the courage to speak, expressing his interest in Oliver in that soaring tracking shot, smoothly performed without a cut, his free and open acknowledgement of the love that dare not speak its name is not the unalloyed joy he had hoped it would be. He may have gotten it off his chest by throwing it out into the universe, but the knowledge initially seems to throw the world off kilter. When the printer mixes up all the pages in Oliver’s previously orderly treatise for example, Elio senses what’s amiss – “I never should have said anything,” Oliver advising him to pretend like he never did “… we can’t talk about those kinds of things, ok. We just can’t.” It’s one of the many instances where ‘traitorous’ Oliver will betray his own advice and example, having earlier encouraged Elio to speak out by asking what he was really thinking while discreetly stealing glances of him in the pool (“Hey, Elio. What are you doing?” – “Reading my Music” – “No, you’re not” – “Thinking, then.” – “Yeah? About what?” – “It’s private.” – “You’re not gonna tell me?” – “I’m not gonna tell you.” – “He’s not gonna tell me what he’s thinking about — Guess I’ll go hang out with your mom.”), and mocked the knight in the story for remaining mum because he was French, gambling on the fact that Elio, being a quarter French himself, would similarly keep his lips sealed.
But refusing to be silenced (“Does that mean we’re on speaking terms, but not really?”), Elio dares reveal even more of the secret self he’s kept long hidden, willingly inviting this man who had taken up residence in his room against his wishes, to his other cloistered refuge at a secluded brook down the glen (“This is my spot. It’s all mine. Come here to read. Can’t tell you the number of books I’ve read here.”), which may have had more relevance if we’d ever been shown a lonely, solitary Elio at this secret, sweet spot before. It makes us feel the same way we do when Oliver looks lovingly down on the sleeping Elio their last night together, and the camera flashes to scenes of the two we were never shown, making us feel we’ve missed something, the way we do when the director preempts their final phone conversation, cutting us out so we never hear how things are resolved between them, if Elio admits he does mind, as Oliver foolishly asks him. At moments like these the movie makes us feel as left out as Elio previously had, when Oliver was avoiding him.
Knowing that their special friendship ‘can only remain the same by changing,’ it’s significant that this next step in their relationship also takes place near water, but in a creek so shallow that it only comes up to their ankles, indicating that their desires can’t be submerged here, that everything must remain laid out on the surface. But while still waters may run deep, we can’t fathom where they’re dredging up the things they’re discussing, with Oliver telling Elio he doesn’t know why he’s always putting himself down and Elio responding it’s so Oliver won’t, though we can’t recall Elio ever putting himself down before, at least until that candid man to man with his father at the end when he shamefacedly admits, with his head buried in the couch cushions, to feeling Oliver was better than him (“I think he was… I think he was better than me.” – “I’m sure he’d say the same thing about you… it flatters you both.”).
Rather than putting Elio down, we can only ever recall Oliver giving him a compliment, about strumming that Bach orchestration on the guitar. We can grant that Elio may have been angst ridden over the false perception that Oliver didn’t like him, when in fact he liked him too much, and we could buy that he may have been afraid of what Oliver would think about him once he told him he was in love, but when the older man asks “You really that afraid of what I think” the little flirt suddenly takes a teasing step in his direction as if he expected to be kissed, to a taken aback Oliver’s disconcert, and later takes things even further by salaciously cupping his balls. Without any sign of hesitancy in such aggressive behavior he doesn’t appear to care much anymore what Oliver thinks about him. Though he later agrees to wear an unflattering shirt only if Oliver approves of it, we don’t recall Elio seeking out his opinion prior to this. Their discussion appears to predate the very events it’s addressing, taking foreshadowing to the extreme.
The screenplay for Call Me by Your Name was adapted by an erudite artist with past experience at rewording the works of masters, and only a traditional man of letters like Ivory could so romantically glorify the act of transmitting your feelings via the swiftly fading avenue of pen and parchment. Madly scribbling missives he promptly wads up like used Kleenex, Elio is the image of a mad, Shakespearean poet in love “Please don’t avoid me… it kills me… I can’t stand thinking you hate me… Your silence is killing me… I’d sooner die than know you hate me…” before assessing such emotional gushing as being “Way over the top.” Instead it’s a more restrained note (“Can’t stand silence. Need to speak to you.”) that Elio leaves under Oliver’s door, prompting Oliver to reopen their line of communication by posting his own response on Elio’s desk, students passing notes in class under their professor’s nose. Curiously, when Elio mixes in the academic treatises Oliver asks him to carry in his knapsack like a messenger boy, with the telltale Cyrano journal he’s been keeping, full of florid, emotional confessions, the film seems to be leading us to suspect that the Freudian slip will result in his true feelings being inadvertently revealed to Oliver when he’s handed the wrong papers.
But though we’d been similarly set up to expect some sensitive twist on Elio’s prediction that Oliver would take his final leave with his offhand trademark “Later,” neither seeming eventuality transpires. Laying everything out in the open, hoping his life would improve, Elio fears it may have just made things worse as Oliver seems to turn on him, again going out of his way to avoid him, so he needn’t confront himself or his own desires. Confusedly strolling over the grounds the next morning in a shaky, handheld tracking shot, rubbing the nape of his neck as he frequently does when at a loss, he sees Oliver draw away from the window the instant he looks up, so he won’t have to engage with him. Left hanging after drumming up the courage to make the first move, Elio, who expected a seemingly responsive Oliver to take him out that very night, fruitlessly waits in the grove all afternoon for him to return, accompanied by Sufjan Stevens’ song, with its illuminating lyrics (“And I would say I love you/But saying it out loud is hard/So I won’t say it at all… And words are Futile Devices.”).
The film starts to go haywire as the hours slip away, flickering as though the negative had gotten caught in the projector and were about to break, expressionistic indication that the fragile cinematic world Elio inhabits is coming apart at the seams as Oliver fails to reappear. A similar directorial imposition will be employed with the use of tinted negative later, as Oliver thinks back over the time he and Elio spent together. As the movie states, “Cinema is a mirror of reality and it’s a filter.” Made to feel as though he’d done something untoward (“Am I offending you?”) by acting on the advice to speak his mind, Elio, still using Caesarean terms worthy of the Italian dialect, replaces the term ‘usurper’ he had earlier used to characterize Oliver with the term ‘traitor,’ considering him a traitor to his sex for having betrayed his true desires, denying their natural attraction to one another. Armie Hammer, despite sporting an etched in granite movie star name as butch as Rock Hudson’s, frequently seems at his best on screen playing gay, here and in Final Portrait and his more mainstream role as the longtime companion of Leonardo DiCaprio’s J. Edgar, where he was placed pretty much in the same position as Elio, frustrated by a man too reticent to act on his own desires. Hammer doesn’t really connect emotionally with the part in the way I kept wishing he would and given his arc, audiences have a difficult relationship with the character, who never fully embraces his true feelings either. But Hammer’s an excellent specimen of what he’s meant to embody – the unattainable, sunkissed golden boy, and maybe that’s enough to fill the void. With his easy charm and self-assurance, one can understand why everyone would be immediately attracted to him here (“Everyone likes Oliver.”), and the camera is certainly in love with him, reflecting Elio’s viewpoint.
With his heavenly looks and perfect enunciation, it makes sense that this stranger in the house would utterly disrupt Elio’s life, as if Zeus had descended from Mount Olympus to abduct Ganymede all over again. Hammer would be great at playing invincible super heroes (he was already The Lone Ranger), but as a mere mortal seems larger than life, several sizes too big to be contained by normal surroundings (“Oh my goodness, you’re bigger than your picture.” – “Well, I couldn’t get all of me in the photo.”), much as his performance seems too outsize for this movie to contain. Maybe the problem is that his big, bluff character has been written as too loud for a film with the tonal grace of things left unsaid.
He has a couple of really memorable, moving moments. His trepidation when he can’t understand why Elio reacts the way he does the morning after they make love, for one, and his pained silence, watching him sleep the night before his departure, turning his head as if anticipating the approaching train whistle on the soundtrack that will permanently drive them apart. It’s probably no coincidence that both of these passages are silent either. Though top-billed, Hammer really has a supporting part, meant to be the germinating catalyst setting Elio’s time-lapse sexual blossoming in motion. And his Oliver is, oddly, kept at arm’s distance for much of the movie, an alluring mystery figure who disappears for such long stretches, he’s ultimately elusive. So I guess it makes sense he would just sort of slip away at the end, impossible to hold on to. But it also makes it difficult to grasp how any of this is playing out from his perspective. His first morning in Italy, Oliver is so anxious to get at the food after having skipped dinner, he accidentally breaks the egg he’s trying to gingerly crack open, an unsettling indication of a certain lack of moderation in his nature. Having no control over his animal appetites, he confides that he knows himself too well when offered another – “If I have a second, then I’m gonna have a third and a fourth, then you’re just gonna have to roll me out of here.” His inability to control his own desires is also the reason why he puts the brakes on when Elio kisses him with such naked hunger in the field, before things get out of hand (“We should go. I know myself, ok.”). Knowing he isn’t able to restrain his impulses, he claims to want to be good (“Now we’ve been good. We haven’t done anything to be ashamed of, and that’s a good thing. I want to be good, ok?”), and it’s clear that his far reaching definition of ‘being good’ includes being ‘straight,’ not acting on his own attraction to his host’s son while he’s a guest in their house, as well as not having relations with a minor.
You don’t typically come across daringly unconventional scenes in American films like the most discussed one here, where Elio has relations with a ripe peach, at least not since American Pie and its derivatives. And the fact that Call Me by Your Name can not only play this similar scene straight all these years later, but successfully bring it off, says something about the hushed, reverential approach it adopts to the material. While the director was tempted to expunge the incident as being too explicit, shying away as he does when the camera discreetly pans from Elio and Oliver in bed together, as if to give them their privacy, and a conflicted Chalamet has admitted to suffering agonies of trepidation prior to the day of shooting, this scene, replete with connotations of forbidden fruit, is actually integral to the movie in the singular way it illuminates and advances Guadagnino’s primary theme of desire. According to quora.com, peaches “For many Western cultures… can symbolize purity, virginity, youth, virtue and good works or, in thematic contrast, the vulva or the buttocks and from there, love and fecundity.” (www.quora.com/What-do-peaches-symbolize-in-art). When Oliver awakens Elio poolside, to read him the drivel he’s written concerning the Greek concept of ‘hiddeness’ (which actually makes perfect sense to us in context of the film), the camera pointedly lingers on the tree Elio passes, full of low hanging fruit just waiting to be plucked. And when Oliver does pluck his cherry it’s with the same appreciative ardor with which the men pick the other ripened produce – peaches, apricots, pomegranates – from the adjoining orchard. Even Oliver’s name tends to call up images of rolling, green Italian gardens of earthly delight. There’s a deification of nature’s bounty at work here that evokes the Romanticists. When the juice from the peach Elio is eating drips onto him, he willfully continues to anoint himself with this nectar of the gods, subconsciously wanting to taste like the apricot juice Oliver had earlier seemed so taken with. When Oliver unraveled the word’s etymological origin, “In the case of apricot, it’s a little bit more of a complicated journey… here the Greek actually takes over from the Latin … precooked or pre-ripened, you know like to be precocious or premature…” both descriptions could have adequately summed up Elio himself. But despite what he does to that poor, defenseless fruit, it’s what transpires between the two lovers afterward that’s far more bruising. When discovered in the attic by an unexpectedly appreciative Oliver, Elio’s too ashamed to come clean, but can’t disguise the pitiful remains of his self-abuse left abandoned on the dresser. The scene starts out playfully, with the saving grace of tickling the funny bone, as an amused Oliver, who can’t quite place the unfamiliar taste, realizes what Elio has been up to and ribs him about his insatiable desires – “Oh I see! You’ve moved on to the plant kingdom already. What’s next, minerals? I suppose you’ve already given up animals. You know that’s me.” Yet things swiftly take on a muddier emotional palette, where one’s darkest desires are unloosed, the shade Oliver earlier spoke of fearing when he refused to go any further in that field. The still relatively innocent Elio, disgusted with himself for succumbing to his own sexually voracious appetites (“I’m sick, aren’t I?”), can’t understand why Oliver would want to humiliate him further by taking a bite out of the peach, an act with its own biblical and fairytale connotations
Any more than he can understand why Oliver suddenly turns violent when he tries to stop him (“Please don’t do that. Why are you doing this to me? You’re f*cking’ hurting me” – “Then don’t fight.”). An upset Elio, not knowing how else to respond in the face of such ravenous sexual hunger, throws his arms around Oliver’s waist in a hysterical fit, to calm him down, to calm himself down, before things can progress any further. Responding in this way diffuses the situation by bringing Oliver back round, knocking some sense into the wolf at his door by redefining Elio’s desire for his love rather than animal passion. In lesser hands a scene like this could have turned to mush, but Guadagnino has the finished, self-confident aplomb to transform it into one of the movie’s genuine touchstones, allowing a welter of real, aching need to rise to the surface like cream, which is why it has swiftly assumed iconic status, despite playing out so differently from the way it did in the novel.
In this moment, Oliver affords us a brief flash of something far less wholesome lurking just beneath the all-American façade, so it’s revealing that Elio is reading Heart of Darkness at scene’s outset. Like Eve, who shared her forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge with Adam, Elio’s intimate encounter with that peach has given him deeper insight into man’s dark desires than he ever wanted to know. But unlike the first two films in Guadagnino’s trilogy, that’s as close as Call Me by Your Name gets to suggesting a destructive side to unloosed sexual desire. All the same, it’s Oliver’s sneaking suspicion that he won’t be able to control these dark drives lurking in his own heart that frightens him so much (“When you least expect it, nature has a cunning way of finding our weakest spots.”), pulling up breathless on his bicycle, panting and sweating as if being pursued by an unseen assailant hot on his trail, after Elio openly expresses himself.
Driving this health nut to break from his regime by picking up the nasty habit of smoking, kindling their romance by lighting joint cigarettes as though we were in Now Voyager, Oliver is convinced Elio is going to lead him even further down the wayward path. It’s why he goes out of his way to avoid Elio, and the temptation he constantly lays before him. Yet this same look, back over his shoulder, or one very much like it, will reappear later as Oliver, now expressing astonished appreciation at life’s wonders, follows Elio in the general direction of paradise, up the side of a refreshingly misty waterfall, having openly embraced his own desires and found there was nothing to fear after all.
Once the men allow their suppressed feelings for one another to surface, we’re intrigued to learn how they’ll relate with the women they’ve been displacing these sexual desires onto. When Oliver told Elio to wait right there in the square while he went to fetch his papers from the printer, Elio assured him “You know I’m not going anywhere.” But amusingly, when Oliver subsequently runs into Chiara and she tells him not to go anywhere because she’ll be right back, he splits on his bicycle the second she’s out of sight, indication that he’s no longer interested in pursuing a romantic relationship. But rather than leaving her in the lurch, the director is thoughtful enough to bring the character poignantly back for Oliver’s departure, too late to say goodbye as his bus pulls away, closing a relationship full of fits and stops that never really started.
Until he returns, older and wiser from his three days away at the end, each time Oliver spurned him, Elio would casually slip back, almost as a reflexive response, into the comforting security of seeing Marzia, this contingency plan guaranteeing him a fail-safe. Much as he’ll later turn to that peach, Elio is using anything and anyone to hand to try to displace his desire for Oliver, which only works to a certain extent. When Oliver asks him the morning after he sleeps with Marzia for the first time, “Someone have a good night last night?” for instance, Elio’s dissatisfaction that the encounter was with the wrong person is evident in his response – “Not really.” It’s this same reoccurring misdirection of one’s real desires that ultimately leads to ‘traitor’ Oliver’s final betrayal, with his displacement of Elio at the end.
Like the two men, who don’t believe they should expose their seemingly unacceptable feelings to the world, Marzia too admits to keeping her real self subsumed, not telling anyone she’s a prolific reader, and though she can’t say quite why, we can read between the lines enough to guess it has to do with the expectations placed on beautiful women not to seem too brainy, for fear of scaring men off. She believes people who read extensively like Elio, do so to hide who they really are, losing themselves in other characters. Fearing being hurt by him, much as Elio fears being hurt by Oliver, she hides a bit of herself from Elio as well, keeping a piece of her heart safely locked away out of reach, where it can’t be broken. And shamefully, Elio does end up doing just that, spurning Marzia after using her in Oliver’s absence, thoughtlessly tossing her aside once Oliver takes him back to bed.
While Elio completely forgets about his rendezvous with Marzia by the river, losing track of the time he fritters away with Oliver at the archaeological site, he’ll later obsessively clock-watch, like Jane Fonda turning tricks in Klute, while making out with her in the pool and the attic, counting down the seconds with avid anticipation until his scheduled assignation with Oliver. Even while nibbling away at Marzia’s own peaches, his carnal yearnings are still all directed toward the other man, his mind so preoccupied with thoughts of who he’d really like to be with, he’s chomping at the bit, hardly able to contain his excitement.
Given Elio’s seemingly noncommittal sexuality, we can’t help wondering if he intends picking up with women again, slipping back into a hetero lifestyle once Oliver cuts him out. Same as we wonder if the decision of Elio’s parents, who are selecting ‘the new Oliver’ to bring on for next year’s sabbatical at the end, with ‘he’ turning out to be a ‘she,’ is a token nod to feminism, or if they’re seeking to avoid any further emotional complications with their son. Nor does Elio’s flip of a coin at the end tell us much, since we’re never shown whether it lands heads or tails. I was surprised to learn that director Guadagnino felt that Elio would pick back up with Marzia, since the accumulative incidents building up to the ending, where Elio, complete with eyeliner, has begun dressing and styling his hair like Robert Mapplethorpe in his early ‘80s self-portraits, makes it seem so highly doubtful that he would backslide. Perhaps there was some meaning in the only other time we saw Elio using the phone in the foyer, before the end, was when he called Marzia for a date after Oliver spurned him. Yet the whole arc of Elio’s character seems to involve him coming to quiet terms with his sexuality and accepting it, in a way that Oliver, who so assiduously avoids contact with the openly gay couple who come for dinner, never will. The film suggests a generational shift between the views held by Elio’s father, the slightly older Oliver and young Elio himself, regarding the prospect of openly living a full, happy and productive life as a gay man, an emerging possibility occasioned by the changing times. During his deeply moving, final meeting with Marzia, one is led to believe that Elio at least, unlike the older men, having discovered his true nature, will no longer be in denial about who he is. Reading the book of poems he gave her by Antonia Pozzi (who lay down in a field in 1938 and swallowed poison, after being separated by her father from the classics tutor she’d been in love with) and gaining a deeper insight into his soul, Marzia can find it in her heart to pity Elio instead of nursing her anger at being cast aside, realizing that, being separated from Oliver, he’d been as hurt as she had, that the broken heart he gave her had circled. And knowing now the pain he must have caused her, I can’t see Elio ever placing Marzia in the same position again. This scene is reassuring because it tells us that if Marzia can still cherish what she once felt for Elio, even after the heartbreak and humiliation of being ‘usurped’ in his bed, rather than following Pozzi’s example, then Elio will still find comfort in the good times he too shared with Oliver, once the same thing happens to him. This is what Oliver had really been alluding to earlier when he’d told Elio that he hated the thought of leaving him emotionally messed up upon returning home, and that he didn’t want him to ever ‘regret’ sleeping together, come what may. It’s also what Elio’s father meant when he advised him not to let the attendant pain and heartache occasioned by the end of an affair kill the joy experienced during it. Bonded by their mutual sorrow, the film has Elio and Marzia remain on amicable terms, declaring the same sort of ‘truce’ Elio earlier had with Oliver at the archaeological site, parting with a handshake and agreeing to remain platonic friends, rather than lovers, “For life.”
Elio, who had once resented giving up his room to this ‘usurper,’ will willingly give up his name to Oliver. Call Me by Your Name’s title plays on matrimonial notions of taking your partner’s surname, at a time when such things weren’t regarded as legally binding (same-sex marriage is still not recognized in Italy). So when Elio and Oliver exchange names while lying in each other’s arms the first night they sleep together (“Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.”), it seems a private wedding ceremony, a personal exchange of vows. Now that they’re wearing each other’s names, much as Elio begins wearing Oliver’s shirt, all that’s missing are the matrimonial bands, though certainly the coupled Star of David pendants they both wear over their hearts may serve the same purpose. Others see their relationship in a comparable light, Oliver stating that when Elio’s father spoke to him, “he made me feel like I was part of the family. Almost like a son-in-law,” apparently expecting the two men to eventually settle down to domestic bliss like the older couple who stops by. The importance of this couple’s appearance in proceedings is indicated by the fact that one is played by co-producer Peter Spears, husband of Chalamet’s talent agent Brian Swardstrom, and the other by the author of the original novel himself.
The open, happy, long-term companionship they share is used as marked counterpoint to Oliver and Elio’s furtive first encounter, with the two creeping around in the shadows trying not to make any noise and scrambling back to their own rooms before it gets too light. But Elio’s dismissive references to the effeminate couple as ‘Sonny and Cher’ tells us he doesn’t see himself, or his feelings for Oliver in the same light, that he’s blinded himself to the obvious, as Sufjan Stevens’ Simon & Garfunkel-like “Mystery of Love” states “Oh, to see without my eyes/The first time that you kissed me.” Elio even calls himself a ‘pussy’ at one point for pining after another man, and by repeatedly having sex with Marzia, attempts to make himself feel more masculine, exorcising the fear that his attraction to Oliver is somehow going to make him effeminate. Rehearsing his greeting before meeting up with Oliver, Elio rhetorically asks himself “Do I know you?” It’s a pointed question since, as he’ll come to find, he really doesn’t know himself, or what he truly desires from Oliver, at all. Despite his assurance that making love will, alone, make him happy, a discontented Elio’s actually left feeling as empty upon waking the morning after, as that girl Chalamet’s character himself deflowered in Lady Bird. Having gotten what he wanted and been left emotionally unfulfilled by the frantic tumble, Elio drapes himself in a black sweater, widow’s weeds, mourning for the deeper kind of relationship that he believes will never be. Drifting apart as they swim in the river, so much distance has grown between them that the camera has to pan to the left just to capture both in frame. Something remains submerged in Elio’s aloof behavior that Oliver can’t quite grasp, until they adjourn to their separate rooms and it dawns on him at the sight of that empty double bed.
It was never just the sex Elio desired from him, but something far more meaningful and lasting – commitment to one another, soulful communion – the sort of bond the older couple has. Though he’d earlier complained about having to wear the shirt they’d bought him the previous summer (“I’ll try it on for Oliver. If Oliver thinks I look like a scarecrow in it, I’m not wearing it.”), when Elio subsequently asks Oliver to leave him his shirt as a keepsake, the one he was wearing when he first arrived and the same one they used to daub themselves up after sleeping together, despite its also being several sizes too big, he’s subconsciously acknowledging this association himself. Though Elio couldn’t suspect at the time, this happy couple he so foolishly disparaged actually point the way to the sort of relationship that he would like to have with Oliver. So when Oliver indicates that their relationship will continue, he’s content and at peace. In love for the first time, Oliver having finally succeeded in working out those corded tensions he’d earlier attempted to at the volley ball game, Elio feels far more open and receptive, like Laura Dern at the end of Smooth Talk, and unembarrassed to show his love by kissing and hugging both his parents. It was this same yen for something more, something better, which laid at the tortured heart of Brokeback Mountain, and the similarities with Ang Lee’s earlier movie are strong. Call Me by Your Name, published two years after Brokeback Mountain was released in theaters, evokes the same sense of wasted time, puzzles over the ineffable nature of love and sexual attraction, uses a signature exchange of shirts on which bodily fluids had commingled, and concludes with a similar, heart wrenching final phone call, which closes the lid permanently on the men’s great romance. As with Brokeback, Call Me by Your Name encompasses an Edenic but finite time spent together over a summer of love that we know with crushing certainty can’t last, but will color the rest of their lives. Time again becomes of the essence here. Thrown together for a spare six weeks, Call Me by Your Name begins ticking down the hours to Oliver’s imminent departure once the two finally come to their understanding, leaving them ruing all the time they squandered avoiding their true desires (“God, we wasted so many days.”), trying to live each moment left to the fullest. Though he fears he’s being too clingy and offers to go after trailing Oliver into town, Elio wants to spend every spare waking moment in his presence (“I just want to be with you”), and as they ride their bikes around the Italian countryside, they look for all the world like lovers taking a romantic stroll. The gnawing knowledge that they haven’t much time left is threaded throughout their interactions as D-day approaches, tingeing them with an unspoken melancholy, such as when Elio blurts out in the attic “I don’t want you to go,” or wakes up in bed, his hand straying over to Oliver’s already empty pillow, a bitter foretaste of his impending absence. So the three day pass they’re given, at the seemingly innocent suggestion of Elio’s mother, is like a last minute reprieve. Oliver convinced himself he was sacrificing his sexuality, putting his hetero feelings on hold, simply to help the conflicted Elio feel better, such as when he kissed him in the field (“Better now?”), making the ultimate sacrifice so that the impressionable kid wasn’t emotionally scarred for life. But it becomes clear at the breakfast table the morning after they make love that Oliver has begun to feel something deeper, something finer, for Elio as well, despite never having wanted to. It’s Oliver after all, not Elio, who initiates their intimate swapping of identities by asking him to call him by his name. So we’re disappointed when he chooses the path of least resistance he does at the end, as though he’d just been killing time with a permissive gap year to sow his wild oats before his real life began, as if Elio were just a fleeting summer fling. When in Rome… The seemingly courageous, self-confident Oliver, who expresses pride in being Jewish, making Elio, who wants to take after him, wearing his same pendant and later the same shirt, see he should take pride in the fact as well, is ultimately too afraid to accept his own desires.
He’s unwilling to bravely declare himself openly gay, the way Elio and his family now openly identify as Jewish, celebrating Hanukkah at the very house Elio had earlier described as the one they came to every ‘Christmas.’ Oliver sells out to the societal mainstream, though I suppose we should have suspected the worst given that even on their last night together in Bergamo, he overlooked Elio, who was standing right there for the asking, in order to dance with a passing woman to a reprise of “Love My Way,” just as he had earlier, indicating nothing in Oliver’s fundamental makeup had really changed. Elio had him pegged correctly as a ‘traitor’ to his true desires, all along. Despite Elio’s best efforts to liberate Oliver of his sexual hangups, same as Oliver had him, he turns out to be far less courageous and self-confident than Elio in the long run. But I think the way events are slanted, audiences are too inclined to judge Oliver unfairly, as harshly as Elio initially had, for seeming to be so thoughtless of his feelings.
Which is likely the main reason Hammer was denied his expected supporting actor Oscar nomination (though considering neither director Guadagnino nor cinematographer Mukdeeprom were nominated either, clearly there was far stronger support for other films among Academy voters). In truth, by being there for Elio at that confusing time in life when he most needed help finding himself, Oliver served his purpose. Older and wiser, he knew their idyllic summer couldn’t last forever, and tried to forewarn Elio of the fact, telling him, in his more veiled way, much the same thing his father later would, about not letting their inevitable parting leave him messed up and regretful. Oliver may disappoint us deeply, but we still pity him, because we know by caving, again suppressing his true desires in order to do what’s expected of him, he’s hurting himself even more than he is Elio. Speaking of the five-party system of government, Elio’s mother opined “I think it’s the historic compromise,” to which her guests retorted “Don’t say that. Compromises are tragic.” Such is the tragic ‘social’ compromise Oliver ultimately makes with himself, sacrificing his feelings for another man in order to conform to the expectations of society.
His inconsiderate timing, when phoning to share his news is the worst gift imaginable to give poor Elio at Hanukkah. Oliver might not have kissed him off with his signature “Later,” as Elio had always feared, but this follow-up call seems every bit as tactless. Yet it’s revealing in it’s own way that Oliver felt he should be the first to know, hearing it from him directly to cushion the blow. When his parents ask Oliver when he’s coming back and he says he wishes he could, Elio drops the phone from his ear at the sinking realization that he won’t be coming back at all anymore. It was painful enough when his season in the sun had to come to a close, but the movie adds insult to injury by leaving Elio in the deep freeze of this winter discontent, shaken by the realization that his great romance is over forever. Their parting couldn’t be more final than if that worrisome wound that won’t heal on Oliver’s side, the same general area Christ revealed to Doubting Thomas, had led to some revelation that his immune system was compromised. (Others have read inferences to the looming AIDS epidemic in Elio’s nosebleeds, as it was with those bloodstained shirts in Brokeback Mountain). Certainly a pall of devastating loss very similar to Elio’s own would be cast over the gay community of that era.
When a heartrending Elio calls Oliver by his name to remind him of the solemn vow they made, we’re thinking, along with him, that Oliver can’t get married, that he’s already married, more or less, to him. They’re still wearing each other’s names after all. If Oliver truly does remember everything, as he claims, responding to Elio’s evocation by again calling him by his name, then it seems unforgivable that he can still do what he does. Sitting by the fire, mourning the passing of his first love to the tender strains of Sufjan Stevens’ original, haunting refrain “Visions of Gideon,” which could have been Oscar-nominated along with “Mystery of Love” (and “Futile Devices” if it had qualified), Elio tries to keep the chill out of his soul as he stirs the dying embers, Oliver’s earlier words echoing in our ears – “What do you do in the winter? Wait for summer to come?,” which actually serves to hearten us with the assurance that eventually it will, bringing warmth and sunshine back into Elio’s life. Yet his range of expression tells us he’s not looking back on the experience with anything like bitterness or the regret Oliver had earlier feared. And surely the director wanted audiences to feel something of the same conflicting flood of feelings over what had just transpired, though I think he misjudged the movie’s emotional balance (we mostly just feel bad for the stricken Elio and angry at Oliver). An enlightened Elio himself however, as his wise father counciled, is willing to embrace all the present pain and heartache as fair trade for even the transitory rapture he’d so briefly experienced. Guadagnino holds on this final image, myriad emotions flickering across Chalamet’s expressive face as the credits scrawl, and there’s great emotional remuneration in having the patience to wait it out. When a reticent Elio finally responds at the close of the scene to his own name being softly called by his mother, he’s in effect accepting that his symbolic ‘marriage’ to Oliver, which began with their exchange of names, is now over. No longer needing to submerge his true self under any other identity, he’s reclaiming his ‘maiden’ name in essence, which he had forfeited for a time, in order to wear Oliver’s. And for a film all about the significance of speaking out, this is the ideal final word to wrap on.
3 thoughts on “Call Me by Your Name”
“What we can’t quite understand however is why his father would characterize Oliver as ‘shy,’ not an impression we ever got.”
I was wondering if Mr. Pearlman’s impression that Oliver is shy comes from his own experiences with men he later tells Elio about (‘I may have come close but I never had what you two have.’). Mr. Pearlman might identify with Oliver and projects his own shyness in past situations with men on him. Because of that, Mr. Pearlman seems to overlook that Oliver simply tries to fight his secret desires by playing cool and so he misreads Olivers trick as shyness. Nevertheless has Mr. Pearlman’s remark a strong impact on the way Elio encounters Oliver. As if he has finally understood the depth of Oliver character, Elio now starts to use this knowledge to dig deeper. And it leads to the power shift in the boys relationship during the guitar/piano scene where Elio is openly teasing Oliver and forcing him playfully out of his ‘shyness’ aka self control.
Interesting interpretation; this is possible. I listened to the book on Audible a couple months ago and was surprised how many of these themes, such as Oliver’s shyness, weren’t translated over clearly into the movie. Most unfortunately – the main theme of Call Me by Your Name, concerning how lovers’ individual identities can become commingled and interchanged through sexual communion. Shame on James Ivory for not fully bringing this out in his adaptation! (he still deserved his Oscar though)