There are spoilers throughout this essay for Call Me By Your Name, so, if you haven’t seen the film, proceed with extreme caution.
Reality is most likely not the first word that comes to mind when I, or anyone else for that matter, think back to Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 film, Call Me By Your Name. To put it simply, the dreamy visuals and the overall ethereal atmosphere simply don’t connect with reality in any feasible way, and yet, somehow, the film seems to perfectly encapsulate the reality of romance, particularly of first romance.
Whether it be in the absolutely gorgeous visuals, thanks to brilliant cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, mostly known for working with Weerasethakul on Blissfully Yours and Uncle Boonmee (both films as beautiful and engulfing as this one), or the alluring soundtrack to the film, featuring beautiful piano compositions from a range of artists, some terrific pop songs from the 1980s and three gorgeous pieces by Sufjan Stevens, the film takes the audience into a dream from the very beginning, and gradually sinks further into it as the romance starts to blossom between Elio and Oliver (both played beautifully by Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer).
The opening scene itself sees the male figure, shown in a sensual, erotic and beautiful way through carefully crafted statues, being studied and admired through time. The bright, vivacious yellow credits and the bouncy Hallelujah Junction – First Movement playing behind it, instantly we are dragged into another world. A world where there isn’t really any trouble, the only fears that these characters need to have is within themselves – regrets, heartbreak… problems that they can do their best to avoid.
It becomes clear by the time that Sufjan Stevens’ “Futile Devices” plays that there is something more to the slowly growing friendship between Elio and Oliver, and it is with a book reading on a rainy day that all becomes clear. “Is it better to speak or to die?” asks the knight. “To speak.”
The bike rides through Northern Italy against the quiet backdrop of crickets chirping also add to the sensuality of the entire film. The visuals drip with eroticism; Guadagnino is showing is a paradise, and he convinces us that this is also an emotional paradise, dragging us in and nurturing us in the visuals, the large, open spaces that seem to go on forever, the carefully crafted streets and buildings made of Stone, the lakes that glimmer in the beaming sunlight and glow in the moonlight.
At first, Oliver’s role in the story seems unclear. He is simply a visitor, and Elio is focused on Marzia. It becomes clear when, on one visit to the town, Elio tries so hard to get his feelings out but is ultimately unable to express himself; the song Words by F. R. David used earlier in the film ironically ringing true in terms of lyrics, with Elio experiencing what the song really means. The lyrics read “Words don’t come easy to me, how can I find a way to make you see I love you?” and the subtle irony of this song playing as Oliver dances and Elio admires the way his body is able to contort as he moves to Love My Way by the Psychedelic Furs, another ironic song choice, further supported by the use of “Lady, Lady, Lady” just a moment before, with one song focusing on a romance between a man and a lonely woman, with the man seeking her out and attempting to win her over with the promise of looking after her, and the other song being about others destroying romance, tearing it apart simply because they aren’t comfortable with it, or that it isn’t fashionable.
The scene in the city centre wherein Elio first tries to put his feelings for Oliver into words shows Elio in all of him uncomfortable insecurity; his fear of being rejected battling with his fear of regretting to say nothing. Elio scrawls in his notebook “I didn’t think he’d like me.”, his insecurity coming to the forefront. The paradise slowly tearing away, but still, the visuals remain alluring and seductive, almost a sweetener at this point – a distraction.
As time goes on, Elio finally reveals himself, and the two are able to share a hidden romance briefly. The two don’t share many sexual moments, and when they do, we are never subjected to them, the camera panning away as if to be respectful of the lovers, seeing it as pure love – something we shouldn’t see. Instead, Guadagnino shows us the intimacy these two share by tearing the lovers apart. We see Elio’s yearning for Oliver when he is away from him, we see him sitting, dreaming about the two being together, as the lyrics from Futile Devices play for a second time, this time isolated from the beautiful piano backing track that makes the song stand out as a beautiful piece, focusing solely on the lyricism and the poetic beauty of the romance between the two men. As we see Elio, sitting there alone, the gentle moonlight brushing against his face, beautiful blue strokes hit the camera, caressing the image and drifting across it like a cloud. The use of this bizarre imagery is repeated later on, too, when Elio remembers the romantic vacation he had with Oliver, looking back at the best moments, the ones that made his heart leap.
Elio’s sexual awakening isn’t exactly subtle in the film, and it doesn’t need to be, however, Guadagnino never looks down on what Elio is going through. The infamous peach scene in particular stands out, as opposed to Elio losing his virginity with Marzia, or even the before and after scenes with Oliver after their first time, the one that speaks out the most to me is certainly the peach scene. It so perfectly captures the guilt of sexual awakening, the uncertainty of it all, and “I’m disgusting, aren’t I?” beautifully encapsulates the discomfort that comes with first times.
At the beginning of Alexander Payne’s 2011 film, The Descendants, George Clooney’s character monologues about how location doesn’t change life, it doesn’t affect emotion, eventually coming to a conclusion of “Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself.”, and it would appear that eventually Guadagnino came to the same decision. The location surrounding you won’t mend your heartache, and Elio comes to realise this as Oliver finally departs, the train wheeling away for the last time.
As we finally see that Elio’s family understand how he feels, with one of the most beautiful monologues in all of cinema, in which Elio’s father 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! … Have I spoken out of turn? Then let me say one more thing. It’ll clear the air. I may have come close, but I never had what you two have. Something always held me back or stood in the way. How you live your life is your business, just remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it and with it the joy you’ve felt.” This speech perfectly captures the entire mentality of the film, the fact that, heartache will hurt, it is agonising, one of the harshest pains anyone can experience, but, if you kill heartache, you kill all emotion. You lose it all. And to lose it all, “what a waste!” Elio takes this in, nodding through his tears and once again reminiscing, looking back on his moments with Oliver that were so joyful.
As we jump from the sun-drenched Summer to the bitter snowy winter, we see that Elio has learnt to deal with his heartbreak, to hold the positive side within him at all times, and as Oliver calls, revealing that now he will be getting married, and then revealing that he remembers “everything” about their romance, about their time together, about the “subtle pantomime” they shared behind closed doors and camera pans, and all we can do is wish that we had shared the feelings with them.
As Elio sits by the flickering flame of the fire, the snow falling down behind him through the window, a fly gradually making its way across his body, as the tears drop upon the realisation that what they shared cannot be shared again, the final track starts to play. The melancholic flutters of the piano, set along to the words “I have loved you for the last time”, set the final stage for the film. A doomed romance from the beginning, it would seem, one that was lost due to fear, due to conformity.
Guadagnino said in an interview regarding the film that he only ever used “one lens… because I didn’t want there to be any technology between the camera and the performance.”, which shows that Guadagnino’s intention all along was to have us fall victim to the alluring locations and characters, only to be eventually captured by the emotional turmoil that the characters experience at the end of the film, a well played magic trick that even Orson Welles would have been proud of.
I feel like if I were to attempt to continue to explain how the romance in this film really works to me I would go on for days, maybe even months, and so, I’ll simply leave you with this excerpt from the book that this film was based on.
“He came. He left. Nothing else had changed. I had not changed. The world hadn’t changed. Yet nothing would be the same. All that remains is dreammaking and strange remembrance.”
Thank you for reading.