A hand dares to reach out. The camera moves in as skin touches skin. We experience the tremor that touch elicits many times in Call Me by Your Name (2017), but all the more intensely when director Luca Guadagnino frames this gesture up close – notable in a film that truly vibrates in its wide shots. In the first of these sequences we see Oliver’s (Armie Hammer) hand land on Elio’s (Timothée Chalamet) bare shoulder. Oliver has paused a game of volleyball to snatch a water bottle from Elio that’s intended for someone else. But the camera is mostly interested in what Oliver is doing with his other hand – isolating it from the rest of Oliver’s body as he attempts to give Elio a massage. It’s an action that surprises, confuses, and arouses Elio. Apart from shaking hands when they are introduced, it’s the first real physical contact between the two men’s bodies, and the first step towards shrinking the physical space between them. Oliver, as he later explains, is touching Elio to show that he likes him. But Elio, despite feeling many things and wanting to know what’s in the American graduate student’s head, misreads this sign.
Much later, when they are on the threshold of becoming lovers, a close-up on Elio’s and Oliver’s hands sparks an even more powerful frisson. When Elio joins Oliver at midnight he finds him on the balcony outside their bedrooms and stands beside him, at a slight distance. The camera frames their hands side-by-side; then Oliver’s hand reaches out to close the space between them again. When he rests his hand gently on top of Elio’s, neither Elio nor the audience misreads the earth-shaking significance of this gesture. Elio now understands how Oliver uses touch to express himself. “I’m glad you came,” Oliver confirms; but his touch says more. Oliver’s hand on Elio’s speaks of desire and absolute acceptance. It says that Oliver wants Elio as much as Elio wants him, and that he wants him to stay right where he is.
Each film creates its own language. Call Me by Your Name’s language foregrounds tactility via images of bare skin, cooling water, and curvaceous, fecund fruits. In this intoxicating, immersive world of sun-kissed, sweating bodies, touch is explicitly sensual and pleasurable. Guadagnino’s history of linking food and sex in both I Am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015) finds full expression here too, but more importantly, touch is Elio’s and Oliver’s primary mode for communicating how they feel about each other. Words repeatedly fail them so they let their bodies do the talking. Call Me by Your Name is a film in which dialogue is used minimally for maximum effect. Its most powerful moments contain little or no speaking at all. This creates an erotic framework in which Elio and Oliver use touch to express their desire, but also curiosity, compassion, adoration, fear, and self-knowledge. Every touch between these young men’s bodies – a hand on a shoulder, a finger tracing lips, a playful, awkward hug, the tangling of toes – delivers a deeply erotic and emotional sensation that extends our understanding of who they are and what they want.
Importantly, Guadagnino isn’t only interested in the moments when Elio and Oliver do touch, but in also making us feel the space between them when they don’t, and how urgent their desire to touch and be touched is. Call Me by Your Name’s erotic tension is inflamed by the long stretches of time in which Elio and Oliver want to touch but are not touching each other at all. Wide shots, low camerawork, and measured pacing stretch out time and space. We see how Elio and Oliver relate to each other’s bodies and how they communicate without words. For much of the film they hold each other at a distance – always watching each other, but unsure if or when to move closer. Touch is a physical language for developing sexual intimacy that Elio, in particular, learns to speak and comprehend slowly and awkwardly, then most eloquently, when it’s almost too late.
Both Elio and Oliver have a personal dialogue with touch that they eventually share. From the start of Call Me by Your Name it seems almost unnatural to us that they are not communicating with each other in the same way, sewing another layer of urgency into their unspoken desire. One of Oliver’s earliest physical gestures underlines his tactility. On his first morning at the villa, he descends the stairs and his hand touches a textured wall hanging. Later, at breakfast, this sensual engagement with his surroundings continues. Oliver smashes into a soft-boiled egg and delights at the golden yolk that spurts forth. More than just indicating his ineptitude, this gesture tells us something more, reinforced when Oliver greedily gulps apricot juice and the camera records it, as if it’s Elio’s watchful eye, with both curiosity and reverence. Oliver’s repeated statement, first in relation to the eggs, then in relation to Elio, that, “I know myself,” confirms a voluptuous hunger. Oliver’s ease with touch is reinforced later in the film when his finger traces the lips of the bronze statue brought up at Lake Garda – a gesture that achieves its sensual promise when Oliver repeats it on Elio’s eager mouth prior to their first kiss, and then again when they are in bed together.
Elio is a ‘toucher’ too. The Perlmans regularly show affection through touch: Elio’s parents hug him; he often kisses them. He lives in a nurturing, physically expressive environment. Elio drapes himself over his female friends, Marzia (Esther Garrel) and Chiara (Victoire Du Bois), as a sign of their mostly platonic intimacy. But Oliver’s presence also introduces a more erotic flavour into Elio’s physical expression, which Chalamet conveys via instinctive choices. Elio is nervous and aware of the risks involved in “find[ing] the courage to reach out and touch,” as he jokes in relation to Marzia, the morning after their night swim. Of course the same is true of his timidity around Oliver. But as with all languages, Elio needs to learn its codes and conventions before he can use it. Not yet able to reach out and touch Oliver, Elio starts by touching his things – a book he’s reading, the words he’s written; then daring to enter Oliver’s bedroom, he places that morning’s discarded red swimming shorts over his face and breathes him in.
To amplify the film’s eroticism, Guadagnino arranges Elio’s and Oliver’s moves toward intimacy like he’s playing a concertina – bringing them closer, separating them, and reuniting them again. In addition to heightening the sexual tension, this dynamic is preparing us for their inevitable goodbye. It’s a slow dance towards touching each other’s bodies; a process of figuring out how to do it. Getting together won’t be easy. But the fact that their romance has effectively ended before it has begun – reinforced by the aural cue of the opening of Sufjan Stevens’ “Visions of Gideon” as they walk from the balcony into the bedroom on the night they first have sex – lends a potent urgency to their intimacy when it finally comes. Guadagnino is offering clues from the start about the finite nature of Elio’s and Oliver’s time together. He uses the physical space of the frame to magnify their distance – whether it’s the bathroom that divides their bedrooms or their positions at opposite ends of the garden and pool – and to underline all the spaces that will only wear the ghostly trace of Oliver’s body once summer ends.
Despite Elio’s misreading of Oliver’s signal during the volleyball game, Call Me by Your Name’s early sequences see them both almost going out of their way to avoid touching. On Oliver’s first night at the villa, Elio tries to wake him for dinner – instead of reaching out to tap him on the shoulder he opts for dropping a book beside the bed. During meals, in the study, or in the garden, Elio and Oliver are rarely positioned in the same frame. We are aware of their proximity, but also their distance. Guadagnino often holds on Elio’s reaction as Oliver exits a scene. We see that Elio’s trying to make sense of Oliver, but the effect also suggests Oliver is out of reach, and getting further away. In addition, we see them going about their days separately – Oliver taking off for town on his bike, Elio watching from the balcony or a window, as he did on the day of Oliver’s arrival. Just like Elio – to whose point of view we are primarily anchored – we yearn to see the space between them dissolve.
Call Me by Your Name’s early sequences function like an extended tease. Obviously, touching is only possible if Elio and Oliver dare to bridge the space between them, and they dare each other to act on their desire in a myriad of ways. After Oliver disrupts Elio masturbating and suggests they take a swim together alone, we see them in the small garden pool. Elio reads, turned towards the camera, as Oliver swims back and forth towards Elio’s body. It’s clear he’s mostly interested in what Elio is doing; just as Elio, not really reading, is hyperaware of Oliver’s presence close by. When Oliver asks Elio, “What are you thinking about?” Elio responds with, “It’s private.” A quietly triumphant smile is visible on his face. Although we see Oliver looking at Elio, now trying to figure him out, Elio’s body isn’t giving anything away yet either. As he will later do during their piano flirtation, Elio draws Oliver closer to him and takes pleasure in doing so – here, literally testing the waters between them.
Elio and Oliver are taking small steps towards a common language and developing the script as they go. Elio, due to his age and inexperience, has more to learn than Oliver; but he’s also more fearless. His growing nerve is evident when he dares to dance into Oliver’s space one night at an outdoor disco. After watching Oliver’s body moving slowly with Chiara, and then with less restraint on his own once “Love My Way” comes on, Elio makes his first attempt to get closer to Oliver in a way that he’s comfortable with. They dance side-by-side – not quite together, but physically closer than they have been before. The sequence that unfolds around the Battle of Piave monument in Crema, allows Elio to be even bolder. While Elio’s verbal confession of desire is opaque and indirect, his body tells Oliver what he wants more clearly. Moving around the monument from opposite sides, they eventually stand and face each other. There is nowhere left to hide. “You know I’m not going anywhere,” Elio says. Oliver might tell Elio it’s best he pretend he never said anything, but when he falters and pauses as Elio rides away, it’s clear that the younger man’s courage has left him nervous and exposed.
The unveiling of each man’s feelings towards the other at the Piave monument creates the conditions that make touch possible in the sequences that follow at the river and on the grass. Despite mutual uncertainty, they each reach out. When we meet Elio he is only beginning to explore his sexuality. Touching Oliver helps him to resolve the argument he’s having with his own body – does he like boys, girls, or both. Oliver is wary, but also more physically confident. We assume he’s done this before. But Elio still has a lot to learn; evident in the way he dives in, mouth wide open, when Oliver kisses him, as they lie side-by-side in the grass. He might not be sure what he’s doing, but Elio is hungry to taste and clearly delighting in the pleasure that touching and being touched by Oliver brings.
What matters here is how kissing Oliver changes Elio, allowing him to relax and explore the physical language that is so natural to him in a new way. He becomes more daring. He refuses to “be good” and stop kissing; he climbs on top of Oliver, and then places a hand on his crotch. Later that day, when Oliver massages Elio’s foot after a nosebleed, Elio lets his fingers wander to Oliver’s chest, his face, and neck. The sequence, which traps Elio and Oliver tight in the corner of the frame, is arguably the film’s most intimate. Elio and Oliver are learning the language of touch from each other. It is mutual, comprised of give and take, listening and responding. Oliver’s compassionate and erotic gesture, coupled with the warmth of his facial expression, tells Elio he desires him too, even if he can’t find the words to say so. The physical language that Elio and Oliver have been developing in increments is now blossoming, and Elio’s fingers, caressing Oliver’s skin, speak back.
Touching and being touched by Oliver makes Elio more open and at ease with his body, but it’s at this point that Guadagnino temporarily removes the possibility of more touching between them. It’s an absence sorely felt – by Elio, and by the audience. Guadagnino reminds us once again that what Elio and Oliver have can’t last. After the intimacy of their kissing and Oliver’s worshipful foot massage, Guadagnino keeps Elio and Oliver almost completely apart on screen until the day they first sleep together. He then drags out that day until midnight comes, by having Oliver disappear entirely from the world of the film after lunch. The tension is excruciating. As a result of this absence, when they finally touch again – Oliver’s hand on top of Elio’s hand out on the balcony – it registers with an enormous emotional and sexual buzz.
Once Elio and Oliver enter ‘their’ bedroom, the physical language they have been developing together finds full voice. Touch closes the space that had previously existed between them, symbolised by the slamming door that secures their privacy. They are now free to explore and try new ways of communicating. A playful bite on the shoulder reminds us of Elio’s nervousness as he tries to figure out how to touch a man. But as he climbs all over and wraps himself around Oliver’s body we also see how euphoric the experience is for him, and just how close he wants to get. As they sit on the bed together, Elio’s toes find Oliver’s toes. “Does this make you happy?” Oliver asks. Elio says yes, as the camera isolates their feet and Oliver puts his other foot on top of Elio’s. Expressing his desire with small, sensual gestures, Elio is speaking Oliver’s language now.
Touch takes Elio and Oliver to a place where the boundary between their bodies ceases to exist. Oliver’s request that Elio, “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine,” is a deep, intimate exchange of body and mind. More than “I love you,” this trading of names says, “I am you, and you are me.” It is a statement that renders all the words that remain unsaid between them in the short time they have together utterly pointless. Their physical language fills in the gaps. Elio’s and Oliver’s body mould sinuously together – throughout the night their legs are so intricately intertwined it’s impossible to know whose limbs belong to whom. Each has surrendered to the other; each has told the other, my body is your body. There is no turning back. Nothing is off limits.
And yet these moments of blissful intimacy gain power and pathos because of the moments without touch that Guadagnino invariably juxtaposes them against. This dynamic is in play again the morning after they sleep together when Elio pulls away from Oliver in confusion and self-doubt. He comes down to breakfast with a kiss for his parents as Oliver sits quietly, contemplating the state of affairs. It is unlikely that Elio would kiss Oliver in front of his parents; but after the closeness of the night before, we feel the absence of a kiss between the new lovers at the time when we are expecting it most. Later, after spending another night together, Elio wakes up and reaches out for Oliver, but touches only the emptiness of his bed. Guadagnino is reminding us once again that soon there will be no touching; that soon Oliver will exit Elio’s world, perhaps, forever.
The final days that Elio and Oliver spend together in Bergamo are endowed with an extraordinary intimacy that Guadagnino repeatedly unravels by stressing their impermanence. Signalled via a point of view shot that takes in Elio’s and Oliver’s shared perspective of the road ahead as “Mystery of Love” begins, they are now so close they are one body. And yet we can’t see them, only hear them; their voices flowing into a new scene, their bodies now visible as they hike towards a waterfall. Elio leads the way, but then turns back to Oliver. Looking at his lover with a sense of wonder, he reaches out to caress his face, as if to check that he’s real.
On their last night together, drunk and ecstatically wandering the streets, Elio’s desire to never stop touching Oliver is palpable. We can see how he worships Oliver, but we also see that he’s already losing him. Elio wraps himself around Oliver’s body, but Oliver is drawn out of his arms when he hears “Love My Way” in the distance. He runs towards the music. While Elio follows him, Chalamet’s face crumples from adoration into alarm – Elio feels Oliver disappearing from his grasp. This response becomes graver when Oliver pulls away again to dance with an Italian woman. Elio left alone and at a distance, vomits, his body in revolt at its impending separation from Oliver’s. Despite wanting to completely possess Oliver – as his intense experience with a peach back at the villa made clear – Elio is realising too late that he can’t hold onto him forever.
Making their way back to the hotel, Elio’s and Oliver’s final kiss (we are not privy to what transpires back in their hotel room) visualises the complete ductility of their bodies that the exchange of names has promised. As they hold each other with increasing ferocity, the shot slides in and out of focus. The space between them dissolves, the outline of each man’s body melting into the other. Back in their room, with Oliver positioned at the window waiting for the sun to rise and his train to come, we enter Elio’s drunken fever dream – the film’s negative inverted so that the short sequence burns orange with the fire of passion. But this could also be Oliver thinking, contemplating the elation of his time with Elio; or a happy fantasy, simultaneously imagined by both men, that Guadagnino allows them to share. What is clear is that at this moment, Elio and Oliver are so close they also inhabit the same mind.
Ultimately, Guadagnino’s gentle attempts to prepare us for Oliver’s absence don’t matter at all. We are no more ready for his disappearance from the world of the film than Elio is prepared for his disappearance from his life. Touch means so much in Call Me by Your Name because of what it represents when it’s gone. To touch another person is to risk everything. Touching has made Elio and Oliver more vulnerable. They understand from the start that every step closer to each other is also a step closer to the end of their relationship, but they boldly reach out anyway. The intimacy of their time in Bergamo makes the pain of their separation greater, and this memory – for Elio and us – haunts the film’s winter coda, when Oliver is just a voice on the other end of the phone. But in Bergamo, at the train station, neither man is quite ready to let go of the other’s body. Losing the other means losing a part of themselves. “We wasted so many days,” Elio reflected, back at the villa. And in their final, silent embrace, as they cleave to each other with increasingly hopeless desperation, we can feel the weight of all those lost days, wasted without touching.