There are few films like Call Me By Your Name.
A work of art by Luca Guadagnino, an Italian film director, his 2017 film Call Me By Your Name is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Set in Northern Italy during the early 1980s, the show traces the story of a 24-year-old graduate student, Oliver, who goes to stay with his professor’s family as a research assistant. During the course of the summer, he gets to know the family, including their 17-year-old son, Elio, and they fall in love.
The uncomplicated plot is perhaps precisely the reason for its success – Guadagnino was not bogged down by multiple twists, turns, and complex antagonists.
Highly thoughtful and deeply relatable at its core; it is, put simply, a coming-of-age story about love and what it means to be a human.
The beauty of how every scene was shot and framed, coupled with a perfectly curated soundtrack, made watching the film an entire experience in itself.
Showing, not telling
Guadagnino was unafraid to let silent scenes do the talking – It was all about the subtext and what was not explicitly said.
By showing and not telling, he has perfected the art of allowing the audience to really access the mood of the scene and interactions.
For instance, there were plenty of silent scenes. At the party, Elio stares forlornly at the lively dance-floor where Oliver is seen having a good time with Chiara.
Elio is also often seen in a restless state. He fidgets on his bed, reads his book uneventfully, or paces the space he is in. Elio’s emotional turmoil, and anxieties at the prospect of Oliver disliking him, come through from his behaviour and mannerisms.
Most significantly, in the farewell scene, Oliver’s classic farewell greeting “Later” was not uttered. Instead, the farewell involved a quiet hug, followed by a profound silence as Elio watched the train leave.
Ambiguous but highly suggestive dialogue
The characters also communicate through ambiguous dialogues, such as the scene where Elio and Oliver go to the town and have a bizarre conversation around a statue.
E: Well, if only you knew how little I know about the things that matter.
O: What things that matter?
E: You know what things.
O: Why are you telling me this?
E: Cause I thought you should know… Cause I wanted you to know. *Mutters under this breath* Because I wanted you to know, because I wanted you to know, because I wanted you to know.
E: Because there is no one else I can say this to but you.
O: You saying what I think you’re saying?
Elio nods coyly.
This dialogue makes no sense unless it is taken in context i.e. It took place after Elio brooded over a quote (“Is it better to speak or die?”) in a story that his mother had read him.
The entire scene, although making no reference to love nor sexual orientation, was a subtle but powerful indication that Elio clearly felt it was better to speak. And that seemingly ambiguous conversation with Oliver provided them with some clarity to kickstart their relationship.
Symbolism and motifs
While uncomplicated, the film was far from simplistic.
Through symbolism and motifs, the audience gains insight to the concepts that Guadagnino is interested in exploring via Elio and Oliver’s relationship.
Desire and sexuality
Ancient Greek statues and peaches were important symbols in Guadagnino’s narrative about desire and sexuality.
When talking about the Hellenistic statues, Elio’s father says that the statues have a nonchalant, “ageless ambiguity… as if they are “daring you to desire them.”
Oliver, after remarking that the statues look incredibly sensual, gazed upon the curved figures with wonder, as if contemplating his own desires.
The statues, as a symbol of ageless desire, surface constantly in the entire film.
The peaches also relate to the same vein of thought.
The fruits first appear at the beginning of the story, where Elio is seen plucking peaches to be juiced – A delicious drink that both of them enjoy together.
As the story progresses, Elio undergoes a sexual awakening, and the peaches become a metaphor for his sexual fantasies and imaginations of being Oliver’s lover. Oliver, upon discovering this, tries to take a bite of the peach, but is stopped by a distraught and embarrassed Elio.
This time, they no longer share the saccharine sweetness of the peach. Instead, the incident is one that suggests the fear of abandonment and judgment, especially for Elio.
Religion, faith and doubt
It is also worth noting that Elio and Oliver are both Jewish.
Elio tells Oliver that his mother often says that they are “Jews of discretion.” After meeting Oliver, however, he wears a necklace with the Star of David upon learning that Oliver too, is Jewish and wears a similar necklace.
This can be read as a subtle shift in the outward manifestations of Elio’s identity. He is slowly coming to terms with who he is, and what he is comfortable projecting – Including his desire for and connection with another man.
Elio’s seeming confidence, however, is tempered by doubt, evident from the feature song in the film’s soundtrack, Visions of Gideon.
While it is about faith, the song also weaves a subtle overarching narrative of doubt.
Elio is likened to Gideon, who took the plunge to believe in something larger than himself. However, this did not come without doubt.
When an inevitable goodbye descends upon them, Visions of Gideon also takes centre-stage as Elio’s response to Oliver’s absence.
Faith and bravery, while they make for a beautiful encounter between two people, may also be accompanied by painful and life-altering consequences.
The song lyrics question the summer relationship: I have loved you for the last time. Is it a video? Was the summer encounter with Oliver something that is now forever out of reach in their physical reality, doomed to loop for eternity as mere memory?
Falling in love is a human experience
Although the film is about two men falling in love, you will not notice any of the tired tropes that always seem to be present in gay films: There was no heterosexual antagonist ready to shut down the romance. There was no awkward coming out scene, or opposition from a heteronormative community.
In fact, people hardly seemed to think that homosexual relationships are anything out of the ordinary.
The relationship between Elio and Oliver was treated as is, free from the societal prejudices so prevalent in our daily realities.
And ultimately, the story’s conclusion cannot be reduced to heartbreak. It is about longing, awakening, faith, and baring your soul to another human being.
With all its tumultuous misgivings, life is and should be a collection of these precious encounters.
Elio’s father reaffirms this in a knowing conversation with Elio: “Right now, there is sorrow, pain… Don’t kill it, and with it, the joy you felt.”