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17th of January 2018


Call Me by Your Name is a meditation on what it means to want another person to the point of possession

In the final scene of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, adapted from Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel, the camera zooms in and comfortably rests on the face of the film’s protagonist, Elio – as portrayed by Timothée Chalamet. In this moment, as the credits slowly scroll past him, we see every emotion flood across his youthful face, shifting his features from regret to yearning to devastation to bitterness to, perhaps, happiness.

Purveyor of sadness and quiet longing, Sufjan Stevens soundtracks the scene as he sings, “I have loved you for the last time. Is it a video? Is it a video? I have touched you for the last time. Is it a video? Is it a video?” in his song “Visions of Gideon.” 

It’s a brief moment, but as a collection of brief touches, words and feelings, Call Me by Your Name manages to perfectly capture that most ephemeral but formative of experiences – falling in love for the first time. It sounds melodramatic, but so is falling in love, particularly as a teenager and particularly for the first time.

Elio is 17, young in many ways, but surrounded by adults who have lived their lives in academia, spending their summers, including this one, at their home “somewhere in northern Italy” where he has not much more to do than play music, swim or bike. It’s a wistful existence, made all the more so by the arrival of Oliver, a 24-year-old student of Elio’s father, staying with the family for the summer to see the city and get some work done under his tutelage. He’s handsome, charming, confident. Appropriately, he is played by the all-American Armie Hammer: blond, blue-eyed, sun-kissed and tall. He’s a vision, or as Elio’s mother dubs him, “la muvi star.”

This is more than a summer fling, it's infinite.

As we watch from Elio’s perspective, he spends the majority of the summer slowly and then very quickly falling for Oliver, wondering if he feels the same way. Later, we discover, Oliver also wasted as much time doing the same, before choosing to act.

Each longing stare from across a tennis court, a dinner table, a field, each splash of water and gushing fruit is laced with a simmering sexual tension, accented with the rippling heat of the Italian summer. As voyeurs, we are pulled along for the ride just as much as Elio and Oliver, each beat relaying an instant recall to first love and a nostalgia so wrenching.

It’s an unmatchable pain, one we see all over Elio’s face by film’s end. In his most affecting moment on screen, Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Elio’s father, attempts to comfort but also encourage him, all the while never directly saying he is aware of the pair’s relationship. His moving monologue, quoted here from the novel mirrored almost exactly in the film, is profound: “I envy you. In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, or pray that their sons land on their feet soon enough. But I am not such a parent. In your place, if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is no better. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything — what a waste!”

Chalamet, Hammer. Sony Pictures Classics

In the time the pair take to finally reveal how they feel about each other, nervous and insecure, Elio and Oliver spend half the summer waiting for the other to act, but in doing so, plant the seeds for a relationship that will stay with them forever. Before he lets his body confess to Oliver, Elio’s mother reads to him from a 16th-century fairy tale, in which a knight pines for the princess he loves, asking himself, “Is it better to speak or to die?” Always speak, Elio tells us just as Guadagnino and Aciman remind us.

The eroticism feels tangible, but it’s also so much more than that, a meditation on what it means to want another person to the point of possession. This is more than a summer fling, it’s infinite. That’s the sentiment Guadagnino captures here with every beat in a film where it’s not sex that should be the focus, though it’s certainly significant, but the messages transferred between glances and touches that say all.

That sense of longing and possession is most heartfelt when the pair finally consummate their love, tangled together in bed. Oliver whispers to Elio, “Call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine.” It’s a strange sort of command, on paper, but it puts into words the confidence of their coupling so that there is no place to wonder or second-guess. It’s a scene made all the more profound, because this isn’t just a love story, but a rare gay love story devoid of shame or rejection.

What a fairy tale to desire someone so strongly, and to have that lust reciprocated into a love so deep, it changes you. Elio and Oliver are soulmates, it seems. Whether they remain together or not, they are forever altered by this one hot summer, on replay like a supercut for a lifetime to come.

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