“To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough […] I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.”
- Walt Whitman
Friends roll their eyes, acquaintances laugh, family members write me treatises on pederasty, and yet…my love for this movie cannot be swayed. Call Me By Your Name: I watched it for the first time alone at the Glendale “Super-Grove," with my now-failing Movie Pass, as a treat for dragging myself to an audition. Little did I know it would become my favorite movie of the year—perhaps one of my favorites of all time—and I would watch it a second time in theaters, a third time on a plane, crying beside a surprised German man, and a fourth time for this little exercise. What is it about this movie that leaves others cold but has me feeling the kind of infatuation that I used to feel when the power of fiction was still new? What about this movie touched a nerve so deep that it has inspired my own work?
This great video essay by Nerdwriter makes some assertions as to why the filmmaking is so effective. It points out the debts this film owes to French New Wave cinema and the works of Merchant Ivory (James Ivory wrote the screenplay, adapted from the novel). These points are illuminating to me as a lifelong lover of film, an actor, and now a student of filmmaking. There are the obvious choices: to shoot on film, with its coveted grainy, nostalgic feel; to use a single 35mm lens, which compares most to the naked human eye; to use subtle, non-flashy camera moves, mostly medium and wide shots, and wide depth of field; to rely on natural light. There’s real tangibility to the film—as the camera glances off an elbow, caresses a face, shows us fruit, wet hair, skin, clothes, flowers on a river bank, we can feel the heat rising from grass, smell the fruit, almost move around in the visible setting. Adding to this effect is sound, notably a total lack of a Hollywood-style score that tells us how to feel. Instead we get mostly diegetic sound, the sounds of nature and music on the radio, sounds of a timeless summer. Our soundtrack is made up of piano pieces Elio is usually seen practicing, plus three evocative songs by Sufjan Stevens. Such choices immerse us in the “fictional dream” without calling attention to themselves.
Some argue CMBYN is merely a collection of pretty images and interiors, like a travelogue, and that the wide shots are detached, like looking at an aquarium. But the slow-paced simplicity put us into Elio’s subjective reality—we hang on every word and every look, trying to figure out the inner life of these characters by external gesture, just like Elio does with Oliver. (The novel is one long interior monologue about this exact exercise.) A more liberal use of close-ups, the traditional filmic marker of inner thoughts, would have been less effective at building this tension. As Nerdwriter argues, viewing distance makes us more aware of the actors’ movements, the charged space between their bodies. There is also the fact that long interrupted takes, space to move, and two-shots wherein the other actor is actually present can lead actors to more truthful performances (which puts my in mind of Vicky Kriep's nice interview about Phantom Thread.) CMBYN is not a terrarium because the actors’ performances contain intimate, raw, moment-to-moment honesty—particularly Timothée Chalamet’s. His performance astonished me the first time, and I enjoy it every viewing—he is transparent, he hides nothing from the viewer even when he must try to hide everything from Oliver. Many of his reactions and attempts to seduce Oliver elicited chuckles of recognition in the theater—a great credit to the subtle, light-touch reality of the film.
Others argue that the camera’s infatuation with a 17-year-old boy is exploitative. Would we feel the same way, they ask, if Elio were female? There is certainly precedent in the real world for ill-meaning adults to use intellectual precocity like Elio’s as an excuse to sexualize a person who is not yet physically mature. Certainly there would be a different aesthetic were Armie Hammer 24 (as his character is, and as he was when he first agreed do the film). But in a film that is relatively devoid of more cliché sources of conflict (no Lifetime Movie tragedy here), director Luca Guadagnino gives us later in the film Oliver’s concern for Elio, his restraint, his knowledge that he is making a strong impression, in now lingering on Hammer’s performance (which I appreciate more each viewing). The power dynamic is changeable as in all relationships. Will Elio leave once he’s finally attained his desire? Is it really Oliver he’s after, or the experience? Has it all been too much for him?
In the end, there is more to art than what we’d prefer politically, especially when it reflects reality in all its messy forms, which is it what this film is all about. Desire does not only occur in the default combination it does in Hollywood films—usually between a woman in her early 20’s and a man at least a decade her senior, if not more—to which, by the way, no American ever seems to bat an eyelash.
I often make fun of myself for loving this movie partly because both of the lovers are male—is it mere titillation? But there is a larger reason that I tend to respond to LGBT stories. Even today, the emergence of queer sexuality is more overtly tied to personal identity, to the question of how to be one’s self in the world, how to discover one’s identity without any ready definitions to draw upon. (This, in fact, seems to be the basic conflict of the film—the tempering of Elio’s desire with confusion and shame over what is normal and what is not, and the unlikelihood and fear of his desire ever being named, let alone returned.)
All of this is brought through beautifully by Ivory’s Oscar-winning screenplay. Having read the novel, I see how spare and well-constructed Ivory’s adaptation actually is, how much it conveys with the economy and compression of time only film can have (as author André Aciman pointed out himself). Who can’t relate to Elio’s attempts to overcome his feelings of thwarted passion with teenage sarcasm, and even the ironic awareness of his own absurdity? Is Elio “annoying,” because he seems so self-possessed, and rattles off in several languages? It is all the more poignant to find such a precocious teen bowled over by the first experience of attraction and kinship deeper than his intellectual mind can comprehend. Language is also part of the sensuality of the film, and the questions of identity with which Elio struggles (Chalamet himself has talked about how one feels like “a different person” speaking in a different language.)
What can I say about this film? Am I at heart just a swoony teenage girl? Is it some kind of calling of the blood of my minor but much-vaunted Sicilian ancestry (Guadagnino is Sicilian, though he shot in Northern Italy)? Is it the predictable result of my tediously bourgeois francophilia? Is it that creativity is same as sexuality, so this film ties in with my own personal cycle of death and rebirth? Is it that I’m obsessive, just a few shades to the right of neurotypical? (Well…for sure…but that’s neither here nor there.) Will my love for this film fade? Will it depart my canon of favorites leaving only an embarrassing stain of the folly of youth? (I’m sure Elio wondered the same thing about his feelings for Oliver.) Am I finally old enough, at about-to-turn-27, to finally “get” coming-of-age stories?
Ultimately the truth is this: I set out this assignment for myself as an attempt to justify my re-watching, to make something useful out of it, to avoid my fear of diminishing returns. But I closed my laptop within ten minutes, unwilling to look away from the slow, beautiful unfolding of the story. Like with fine wine, or true love—the returns to this film are not diminishing, only different. Art is personal, and something within me responds to this kind of story—something that loves the painful memory of teenage awakening…the pining, the fear, the yearning, the way desire can feel like insanity, the way new experience, while terrifying and awful and existentially annihilating, can also be the most delicious joy of one’s life…the way reality and the desperate attempt to transcend reality coexist within each fraught, luscious, lived-in frame, pain and anguish and transcendent beauty all together…
CMBYN about desire, about how we make things into more within our minds and hearts—and that is the kind of relationship I have with this movie. Like any resonant work of art, it opens up the Jungian worlds within. Insecure lovers ask, why do you love me? You can list positive traits, you can list bad ones (women love men for their defects, according to Oscar Wilde), you can talk endlessly about the awful patterns your parents instilled in you which you are now repeating, but ultimately you come short of the truth. We love because we love. And I love this movie. We’ll see how long it lasts. But no matter how long, like Elio with his Oliver, loving it changed me.