Call Me by Your Name is a film of intimate and intense moments that come together to convey the experience of desire and first love. Here are brief thoughts on some of the moments in this gorgeous film by director Luca Guadagnino that matter the most to me.
“Sit for a second.”
Another hot summer day somewhere in Northern Italy; another morning spent riding bikes into town. At lunch, Elio’s (Timothée Chalamet) nose bleeds. Maybe he’s shocked by his own boldness in daring to confess his feelings to Oliver (Armie Hammer) and to kiss him earlier that day, or confused and unsure about what happens next. Maybe he’s overcome by his desire for more kissing. Elio quickly leaves the lunch table, and Oliver’s the only person remotely concerned: repeatedly looking towards the house, anxious for his return. He’s worried that maybe he’s caused this. Unable to take it anymore, he excuses himself and heads inside where he finds Elio seated in a corner, icing his nose. “Sit for a second,” Elio suggests, before declaring, “I’m a mess.”
Here is a scene that extends Elio’s and Oliver’s slow dance towards each other throughout the film, a scene in which both say so much to each other while saying very little. It’s a transitional scene; it gives Elio and Oliver a chance to pause and take stock of where they are. Director Luca Guadagnino lets the framing and blocking tell most of the story. The camera traps Elio and Oliver in the corner of the room, placing us right there alongside them. It stays low — in a private space watching a private moment unfold. Oliver reaches out for Elio’s leg, draws it towards him and takes Elio’s foot in his hands and massages it. This, he tells him, is what his Jewish grandmother would do for him when he was sick. But there is both pleasure and pain in the act for Elio. “You’ll fucking kill me if you do that,” he says, aware of how much he’s risking. And Oliver, his desire increasingly exposed, says gently, “I hope not.”
Where words often fail, touch is Call Me by Your Name’s primary language for communicating how characters feel. By touching Elio, Oliver tells him how he really feels. And Elio’s fingers reciprocate, and talk back. He reaches out to touch Oliver’s face, lingering erotically over his neck. It’s a touch that says ‘thank you’ for your kindness as much as it says ‘I want you.’ Elio’s fingers eventually find Oliver’s Star of David necklace, pointing out that he used to have one, too, but that he no longer wears it because his family are “Jews of discretion”. (Later that afternoon, we will see him swimming at the river and that he has found his necklace and is wearing it again.)
Elio’s and Oliver’s entire relationship is built on the twin pillars of desire and compassion; this stolen, sensual moment illuminates just how closely they coexist. With the foot massage, Oliver administers a balm and expresses tremendous tenderness. He and Elio fuse their bond — over their shared Jewishness, and the secret desire that now binds them. Oliver’s foot massage is certainly brotherly and familial, but it is also explicitly an act of worship, from a lover in waiting, who is keen to touch more. While Oliver put an end to their kissing earlier that day, a final kiss on Elio’s foot before he exits the frame confirms his interest. Such an affectionate, sexy gesture reveals that Oliver is falling for every single part of Elio. And in the intimately entwined formation of their bodies within this secluded corner, we see the birth of Elio’s and Oliver’s burning attachment — the indistinct tangle of limbs they will become once they finally sleep together.
The morning after
We might not see what takes place between Elio and Oliver the first time they have sex. But from the force of the sequences on either side of that event, we know something meaningful has transpired. Before the sun rises on the morning after, Guadagnino presents a series of tangled poses, knotted limbs, heads leaning into each other, and Oliver wiping his chest clean with his billowy blue shirt. The editing here is beautifully paced; sound reduced to just the two men’s breathing. We are enveloped in the sensation of a long, slow night of lovemaking, and we anticipate that Elio and Oliver will be closer than ever before when they wake up.
But as day breaks, we see that a space has opened between them again. While Oliver’s arm is draped around Elio’s shoulder, his fingers on his chest, Elio stirs. He sits up, not saying a word, and only gives the slightest glance to Oliver who smiles and instinctively moves his body towards Elio’s. He’s happy. He feels close to Elio and expects some acknowledgment of the night before — a word, a kiss, a hug, or more. But Elio’s move away from Oliver tells another story. “Let’s go swimming,” he suggests, looking unsure, even a little irritated, and gets up without looking back.
Armie Hammer brings Oliver into focus in unexpected ways here. He reveals Oliver’s insecurities like a lightning bolt. We suddenly see what we hadn’t seen before, that just because Elio has seen him as cool and confident, this is not who Oliver is. His face becomes softer, open, and more vulnerable. When Elio is in a hurry to leave the bed in the morning, Oliver looks confused, and patently disappointed. His smile crashes. He seems to be asking himself if he’s made a mistake. With just a few gestures, Hammer shows us how the stakes have suddenly shifted. While Guadagnino has tethered us to Elio’s point of view, we’ve had less access to Oliver’s interior life. But here, it seems clear that if Elio is at least partly experimenting with Oliver to discover himself, for Oliver this is no game. While we expected sex to be a big deal for Elio, it’s perhaps more surprising to see how much Oliver has also risked.
Hammer extends Oliver’s vulnerability throughout the morning. At the river, as they swim at opposite ends of the frame, he is both physically and emotionally exposed. “Are you going to hold what happened last night against me?” he asks, clearly feeling punished by Elio’s silence and distance. Back in their rooms, Oliver glances at the rumpled bed. Hammer’s quizzical expression seems to ask: “Was it real? Did Elio really want me?” As Elio temporarily disentangles himself, Oliver’s uncertainty takes the lead, allowing Hammer to reconfigure this object of desire into a full flesh and blood man.
Touching the peach is like touching him
“Touching the apricot was like touching him,” Elio remembers in an especially erotic passage of André Aciman’s novel, Call Me by Your Name (2007). He’s been watching Oliver on the ladder picking apricots and observes how the curve of his ass resembles the sensual arc of the fruit. Later, once he and Oliver are lovers, Elio masturbates using a peach — the curves of the larger fruit, even more plump and fleshy. In bringing this scene to life on screen, Guadagnino makes this connection between Elio touching the fruit and touching Oliver explicit. It recreates Aciman’s daring act of desire with delicacy, good humour, and tremendous intensity. It’s a scene of fluctuating emotions and tones, a scene perfectly calibrated within a film sensitively attuned to the vicissitudes of first love, and especially the doubts and distortions it creates.
Elio’s hunger for Oliver — after they have finally had sex — is ripe. As he wanders restlessly around the house, he picks up two perfectly formed peaches. Taking the stairs to his cloistered attic refuge, Elio is bored, horny, and vulnerable. He lies down on the mattress and eats one of the peaches, but for the other, he discovers another purpose. The camera’s focus is initially on the violence of the removal of the stone — Elio’s finger penetrating the soft flesh and pulling it out. We see him considering the shape of the fruit and the hole, and then his hand moves it down to his groin. Guadagnino keeps the camera on Elio’s face, interested in the emotional course that has brought him to this point. Chalamet’s facial expression, as he manipulates the fruit, traverses indolence, lust, surprise, relief, and then shame.
When he’s finished masturbating, the sight of the shattered fruit, dripping with DNA evidence, fills Elio with shame. The scene shifts from an expression of his primal passion for Oliver to something else, and then something else again when Oliver enters the scene, finding Elio asleep. His arrival momentarily breaks some of this tension. He kisses Elio’s belly and tries to finish the blowjob he had teased at earlier that day. Finding Elio sticky he asks, “What did you do?” The lengthening of the delivery of ‘do’ reveals both Oliver’s amazement and genuine enthusiasm, confirmed by his declaration that “I wish everyone was as sick as you.” Elio thinks Oliver is making fun of him when he licks the fruit and threatens to eat it. He lashes out. When he cries, “I don’t want you to go,” Oliver seems to understand why Elio has done what he has done. In touching the peach like a lover, he’s tried to hold onto him forever, reinforced by the fierce embrace that concludes the scene.
Ultimately, this isn’t about the comedy of fucking a piece of fruit, but the urgency of Elio’s and Oliver’s togetherness and the complexity of feelings it unearths. They have fallen for each other and into each other’s bodies in a big way. In Call Me by Your Name, love is an offering of self to the other and an acceptance of the other into the self. Elio wants to absorb every part of Oliver and possess him completely. Only a gesture as seemingly outrageous as this one can do this need justice. It is, in many ways, an extension of the erotic exchange of their own names in place of the other — their bodies so ductile that the space between them ceases to exist.
Is it a video?
The extended close-up of Elio’s face that concludes Call Me by Your Name is like a video I have played on repeated loop ever since I first saw it. It is the most important sequence in a film comprised of so many utterly indispensable ones. It is difficult to look at it, but it is also impossible to turn away.
Oliver’s phone call, a number of months after he and Elio said goodbye at the train station in Bergamo, reopens a briefly sealed wound. As Elio wanders around the house, struggling to keep a lid on his feelings, we know the wound is about to bleed profusely. He eventually settles alone in front of the fireplace. He has a lot to process — the sound of Oliver’s voice; the shock news of his engagement; his own dormant yearning. There’s also the knowledge, thankfully, that Oliver has missed him, “very much,” as he says. Elio is desperate to recapture the intimacy they shared in the summer. “Elio, Elio, Elio,” he repeats on the phone, enticing Oliver to reply with his own name. “Oliver” he moans in return. “I remember everything.” This momentarily soothes Elio. But is remembering enough?
In Aciman’s novel, Elio thinks back to the birth of his desire for Oliver and wonders, can memories bring back summer in a snowstorm? In Guadagnino’s film, when Elio looks into the camera — effectively looking directly at us — he seems to pose a similar question. Will his memories of his past with Oliver be enough to make that time real again? Can they keep him warm? Elio’s only looking back a matter of months, but now it’s December; it’s snowing and his hold on the Oliver of last summer is slipping.
Timothée Chalamet pulls together everything he has shown us in the two hours prior in this silent, mostly still, exposition of the totality of love’s loss. He doesn’t need to say a word. In his face we see that Elio understands that the space between he and Oliver is increasing. And this knowledge feels like a death for him. Elio has found a home in Oliver, as Aciman writes, a “secret conduit to myself.” Being without him, being unable to touch him, or to be close to Oliver’s body, is akin to exile — a dislocation for Elio from his own body and his idea of himself.
“I have touched you for the last time. Is it a video?” Sufjan Stevens sings as Elio grieves, cries, becomes angry, momentarily brightens, and then breaks down again. When his mother calls him to Hanukkah dinner, Elio glances at the camera and then looks away, as the screen goes black. There is ambiguity in this gesture. I’ve replayed this moment over and over, and its meaning keeps changing. At first, I felt certain that Elio would be okay. Life will go on. He will have other lovers. He will certainly be loved. I still think this. But I also think something has broken that can’t be fixed. Loving Oliver has changed Elio for better and worse. Now I wonder: will he be haunted by its loss and his grief for the rest of his life? It has made and unmade him — it will continue to do so every time he replays scenes from the past in his mind. Love that earth-shattering usually does.
A version of these pieces was originally published at The Seventh Row.
LOVE this beautiful essay. Oh, it makes me want to watch the film again and again and again. I also appreciate a well-placed f-word. 😉
Haha – you know, sometimes no other word will do.
Thank you for yet another incredible essay! Very beautifully written, with many delicate observations.