There is a scene in Call Me By Your Name in which Oliver, naked, looks down on his sleeping lover, Elio. Earlier scenes of their flirtation and romance flash onscreen now in negative, a black and orange tint, making ill-defined what was once clear.
Are these flashes of Oliver’s memory? Of Elio’s dreaming?
Call Me By Your Name, much like these stylized scenes, plays out as a sort of gauzy dream: a vision of queer adolescent longing and desire, of human relationships and conversations, of Jewish and queer identity, of questioning, endless questioning. It is built on things unsaid and half-said or half-heard and misheard—on discretion as a form of communication. Central to the story are the ways we talk to each other and ourselves and the questions we attempt to answer—questions both real and esoteric.
Much like these negative flashes, when movie ends and credits roll, we are left to wonder if what we saw was memory or dream. Were these visions of Elio and Oliver real?
I don’t mean to imply that we should be questioning the details presented to us. The story, as it unfolds, is “real.” In the early 1980s, Elio Perlman, a 17-year-old Jewish-American boy, spends his summers in Italy with his mother and professor father. Oliver, a visiting student, also Jewish American, stays with the family for six weeks in order to study with Mr. Perlman and work on his book. Over the course of his stay, Oliver and Elio forge a relationship that gives way into romance and sensuality. These things are real—but the question of feelings and emotions, of the way Elio saw and interpreted these events, were they real?
Luca Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom bathe Call Me By Your Name in summer sun, brightly colored fruit, and glimmering water. The movie is an almost Euro-fantasy of a young man exploring his sexuality and fooling around with the handsome American come to stay for the summer. In a lesser filmmaker’s hand, this would be gaudy and smutty: visions of romance and seduction would become grunts and grinding. Basically, thank god a gay man directed Call Me By Your Name. Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory expertly tell this queer, Jewish story—for Call Me By Your Name, in its endless questioning and conversations on meaning, is distinctly Jewish as well as gay (it is also a Hanukkah movie that I’ll be watching now yearly). Writer and director play with the audience, infusing tension where there should be none and deflating loaded scenes in an instant. The sensual and oblique connection and communication Elio and Oliver share is intimately familiar to me as a gay man, even if the details of Elio’s adolescence and sexual discovery are different. When Oliver first touches Elio—a shoulder massage—it is public but sensual. Like moments throughout the movie, like so many moments in my life, it is fleeting and indecipherable—it could be real or unreal, flirtatious or friendly.
As their story goes on, very little ever becomes concrete for young Elio—events and conversations are forever open to interpretation and re-interpretation. There is a scene in which Elio and Oliver circle a World War I statue, of which Elio is, of course, explaining the meaning. The camera captures both of them separating as they circle the memorial, pausing mid-conversation, only to come together again on the other side. Elio sort of confesses his feelings for Oliver, who sort of confesses he also feels similarly, yet the scene is open ended, open for doubt—the pair’s relationship throughout the movie echoes this staging of unspoken separation and coming together again. In another movie, it would be a grand scene with swelling music in which everything is neatly explained and laid out on the table, our leads kiss, etc. In Call Me By Your Name, Elio and Oliver are left to fill meaning in each other’s silences, just as much as the audience is meant to interpret the scene at their leisure.
Even as it so rarely wants to explain things to the audience, Call Me By Your Name is a movie obsessed with meaning. Its characters, too, are surrounded by, or actively involved in, searches for meaning. Elio spends his days reading books and transcribing music—translating abstract sound into symbols. Elio’s father and Oliver, likewise, work to understand the history of artifacts and words. When he first arrives, Oliver corrects Mr. Perlman and explains the root of the word “apricot”—unaware that this is a game the professor plays with every student, a game known to Elio and his mother, who wryly smile as the American falls into the family’s inside joke.
Each scene is filled with these conversations on meaning—whether explicitly or in subtext—and extending from this, characters partake in ignorance and revelation in turn. The layers of knowing and unknowing in the apricot scene play out throughout the movie, in other conversations and with other characters.
Like Mr. Perlman’s archaeology work, it is ongoing: we watch these characters dredge deeper into the waters of memory and moment in order to find another artifact of some broad story that seems to have no answer or end.
The movie is remarkably like life in this way. We pore over words and semantics and even sighs in order to anchor them, making them real and understandable, connected to the larger story that we tell ourselves. Elio writes on a notepad his feelings towards Oliver, and in doing so he crafts a story he can tell himself. Each interaction becomes a notch towards whether Oliver does or does not like him, and the story, as he lives it, becomes, if not comforting, then manageable—not unlike the fairy tale his mother translates to him and his father, for even the bedtime stories in Call Me By Your Name are written in one language but told in another.
Of course, these stories we live rarely look like the bedtime stories our mother told us or we told ourselves. Call Me By Your Name is no exception. Elio and Oliver’s love affair, almost necessarily, must come to an end—it is, after all, “real.” The dream and vision of summer give way to winter, the lighting moving from sunshine and sun glitter to fireplaces and menorahs, the camera moving from the sensual to the poignant. Oliver becomes a voice over the phone, an empty space, another story to pore over, to search for meaning in. This ending, though, is neither tragic nor stereotypical of the gay canon as we expect it—no homophobic parents interfering, no sudden AIDs diagnosis, no unexpected calamities. It is a quiet departure, and it feels real—the type of ending you would expect when a teenager and graduate student fall in love during the latter’s brief summer excursion in sun-soaked Italy.
Their brief affair highlights a truth of life, in that so many of the people we connect with are merely visitors in our story, just as our story is hardly a story, so much as a mess of events, people, and revelations.
Life is made not of straight lines, but all curves.
I don’t mean to sound cynical or trite when I say that the people in our lives are simply visitors—just as much as I think we are visitors to them. Oliver was always a six-week visitor, another student staying with the family, perhaps even just a tourist in Elio’s life. Some visitors do surprise us with their permanence, others with their impermanence. Even family members and close friends, apparently permanent, will one day leave—a final departure, leaving only empty space. Death and departures are similar in this way: we must give up on plans and dreams, coping with whatever we have left. In dealing with other people, with visitors, we take from them and they take from us, in a series of exchanges and conversations both known and unknown—both physical and ethereal.
A dirty shirt. The song a lover would play. A book of poetry from a friend. A fairy tale your mother told. Scratches of a feeling in a notepad. The memory of a summer love.
Souvenirs, all of them.
This idea of visitors and souvenirs has danced on my mind, in the wake of a separation and moving to a different location, as I still try to parse out the things I took and gave and as I cope with empty spaces. Like Elio, I too find myself with an empty space and a voice on the phone. In my rush to feel better, to feel like myself again, or to feel some semblance of “normal,” I got lost in the fact that healing takes time and self care is often messy and hard—I was prepared to step over the hard parts, even if it meant feeling nothing.
I was ready to forego meaning, in order to feel numb.
Souvenirs, like artifacts to history, help make concrete the dizzy unknowable lives that we all lead—and help us comprehend people who have had an impact both great and small. Souvenirs capture something, a moment or a mood, and they allow us to tell the stories we lived in a way that makes them meaningful, real. Our stories are immensely vital to our identity, since other people are forever incomprehensible—every visitor enigmatic, no matter their length of stay. We take and give, sometimes without thinking, because so much of life is spent dealing with things intangible and seemingly unreal, with people who we’ll never comprehend and events with meanings that are forever fluid.
Honestly, even souvenirs are open to re-interpretation.
Yet I realize now that this empty space is another souvenir—albeit a painful one. And in that pain—in my pain—there is healing and rebuilding: there is medicine. I see now that the empty space is just as much mine as the memories we shared, the quilt he made, and the songs that remind me of him. All of them granted with new meaning and the memory of him, all of them containing multitudes: joy and sorrow, in turn.
I keep returning to that final conversation between Elio and his father, arguably the movie’s climax, perhaps in part because of its ringing truths to my own year and because of Michael Stuhlbarg’s standout performance as Elio’s gentle father. To say it is one of the year’s best performances, and even scenes, is an understatement. Stuhlbarg waxes poetic on the edges for much of the movie, only to deliver a breathtaking and emotional monologue towards movie’s end. Speaking to his son, Mr. Perlman says:
“We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty, 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!”
Call Me By Your Name appears as a dream or a vision because life is rarely well defined. The movie, like life, hardly ever has answers, so much as it has moods and artifacts. It is masterful, dealing in the inscrutable in order to capture something distinct and real, for of course, to Elio, it was all so very real, every feeling, every touch. It asks you to take it all in, every souvenir, happiness, sadness, and the mundane moments in between; to be anything but numb; to see that healing is sometimes painful, like vomiting, an inflamed wound, or even weeping; and to know that meaning is something felt, created, and found. Meaning is rarely intrinsic.
Ultimately, Call Me By Your Name asks that you have your life be anything but empty. Fill yourself up: with souvenirs, with meaning, with life. Above all, with life.
L’chaim. To life.
Call Me By Your Name
dir. Luca Guadagnino
Now playing at Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema, and elsewhere