They don’t make films like Call Me by Your Name anymore. Films of such bold physicality and excessive splendour are few and far between since the days of Bernardo Bertolucci and the intellectual, worldly literary adaptations typical of Merchant-Ivory films.
What makes Call Me by Your Name an exceptional romantic feature is not only the power of the love story between characters Elio and Oliver, but the strength of the narrative, the depth of the characters, and the believability of the world around these characters. Here are six reasons that Call Me by Your Name is one of the greatest romantic films of the 21st Century…
Much of the screen time of Call Me by Your Name focuses not exclusively on plot progression, but takes its time to introduce viewers to the physical world in which the characters live.
In the end, the film provides viewers an immersive sensory experience that rivals even the most extravagant 4DX screenings. This is accomplished in part by the inclusion of more natural sound and vision: The traffic in downtown Crema and the roaring cicadas of the orchard force characters to raise their voices and interact with their environment.
The sticky heat of the Italian summer is expertly conveyed by both the scenery of the film as well as Timothée Chalamet’s performance as Elio, a restless, introverted victim of dog day boredom.
Fluidity and texture play immense roles in the film’s aesthetic. Be they the runny soft boiled eggs and apricot juice enjoyed by the Perlman family each morning; the streams, fountains and waterfalls of Northern Italy; or even Elio’s vomit, urine and nosebleeds at various points in the film; not to mention the sticky peach juice running off his chest during one key scene. And on that note, many of the film’s viewers may never look at a peach the same way again.
The aforementioned nosebleed and the presence of other bodily fluids, along with the nasty, infected bicycle crash wound on Oliver’s hip all bring a certain visceral, real-world physicality to the film.
Regarding the film’s love scenes, Call Me by Your Name undoubtedly sets out to provoke its audience, but not to traumatize them. Such scenes, be they between Elio and Oliver (or Oliver and Elio), or Elio and his girlfriend Marzia, are handled with a remarkable maturity and lightheartedness in comparison to the film’s contemporaries of the erotic art-film world; like Gaspar Noé’s glorified sexploitation film, Love, whose characters are wholly unsympathetic; or Abdellatif Kechiche’s La vie d’Adèle, which leaves little to the audience’s imagination.
2. The Idyllic Setting
The film delights in lingering shots of flowing waters and sun-baked landscapes. It could be said that a film was never so in love with rural Italy since Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt considering it’s adoration for antiquated statues, crumbling town squares and pastoral orchards.
The antiquated villa inhabited by the Perlman family doubles as a character all its own: with its rustic charm and labyrinthine design, wrought with stacks upon stacks of novels; weathered so much so that one can practically smell the musty, yellowed pages.
Examinations of ruins and Hellenistic statues, as well as the character’s carefree, pastoral relationship with the landscape call to mind Roberto Rossellini’s neo-realism staple, A Journey to Italy.
At one point in the film, Elio’s father makes a remark concerning the “ageless ambiguity” of the Hellenistic statues they’ve dredged up from the water. This observation can also be used to aptly describe the feel of this film. Call Me by Your Name is set in 1983, but it is clear that director Luca Guadagnino goes out of his way to keep the film from becoming a stereotypical Oscar-bait period piece which serves as an excuse for a costume party where actors to work through ridiculous facial hair confiurations and comb-over’s.
Apart from the odd salute to the Talking Heads, or a New Romantic hairstyling, it’s a film very much out of time; both in the way that the film has been made as well as the way the characters act. Elio and Oliver could very well meet tomorrow and the themes of story would be just as powerful.
The majority of the cultural references of Call Me by Your Name—which serve to ground the film in a tangible world—evoke for North Americans a past and a nostalgia that was never theirs. Grainy Italian new-wave music crackles over the radio and obscure foreign TV makes the odd appearance. The locals discuss local politics and the death of Luis Buñuel, and relics of Fascist Italy lurk in the background.
3. The Score
Sufjan Stevens’ contributions to the soundtrack of Call Me by Your Name are another example of the film’s timelessness. Themes of longing and confused platonic love as covered in 2010’s Futile Devices from the album The Age of Adz, and the original tracks Mystery of Love and Visions of Gideon play expertly into the film’s coming of age motifs and highlight the whirlwind of emotions experienced by Elio for the first time in his life.
Futile Devices speaks to Elio’s fear of rejection by Oliver and more broadly speaking his fear of opening himself up to anyone in any way with lyrics such as:
And I would say I love you
But saying it out loud is hard
So I won’t say it at all
And I won’t stay very long
The two original compositions for the film, Mystery of Love and Visions of Gideon reflect the two moods of the film; love and loss. So it is only fitting that both pieces, though each unique, reference and compliment the other. With Mystery of Love we see the more uplifting, whimsical aspects of young love that speaks to the dizzying highs of Elio and Oliver’s relationship; and with Visions of Gideon we’re treated to a track that mourns what the two once had together.
The elements that connect the two songs are the alternating lines “the first time that you kissed me”/”the first time that you touched me” in Mystery of Love; contrasted with “I have kissed you for the last time”/”I have touched you for the last time” in Visions of Gideon.
Much like the rest of the period elements of this film, the soundtrack choices dig a bit deeper than a selection of Top 40 call-backs to the era that say little more than “remember these?” Instead, the songs—such as Love My Way by The Psychedelic Furs—are more atmospheric, evoking nostalgic feelings attached to the music as opposed to the songs themselves.
The most obvious metaphor found in Call Me by Your Name is the recurring image of the peach. The Perlman family’s villa is located in a lush orchard populated by cherries, peaches and apricots; which all evoke youth, freshness and pure earthly pleasures. This is perhaps most painfully apparent in the scene where a hormonally charged Elio masturbates with a broken-open peach which Oliver later threatens to eat in front of him.
The recurring presence of flies in Call Me by Your Name has invited several interpretations from film critics. Luca Guadagnino notoriously refused to comment on the theme in interviews.
Throughout the film, Elio is pestered by a fly that lingers in his room. Eventually the audience forgets this minute detail, but by the movie’s conclusion, where we find Elio holding back tears in front of the fireplace, reflecting on what he and Oliver had, a fly comes into focus on his shirt. Some of the theorized meanings of the fly motif have included the notion that, like Oliver and Elio, flies are with us only for a short time.
A more sinister interpretation of this is that flies do not live long, and though the film takes place in 1983, the beginning tremors of the AIDS epidemic go unmentioned in the film. Perhaps the doomed flies are to be taken as a symbol for the fate of many young men like Elio and Oliver in the years to follow.
The flies might not be the only subtle AIDS symbolism to be found in Call Me by Your Name. As mentioned in the discussion of the sensuality of the film, it’s a work heavily preoccupied with fluids and viscerality. The first romantic scene between Elio and Oliver is abruptly interrupted by reminding the audience of Oliver’s gruesome infected wound; snapping us out of the clouds and back to reality, this is followed by Elio’s out-of-nowhere nosebleed after the pair return to the villa.
Furthermore, during the pair’s visit to Bergamo, a drunken Elio sees Oliver dancing in gay abandon with a random Italian girl and he spontaneously vomits. However, these scenes could be more practically interpreted as devices to remind the audience of the too-good -to-be-true nature of their romance by introducing some grotesque into the idyllic atmosphere.
The nosebleed could be a sign of the overwhelming feelings felt by Elio, and the vomiting scene could be written off as drunken misadventure, or the deeper, sickening realization by Elio that he’s just a temporary stop in Oliver’s free-wheeling journey through life, and that for him, this is not a profound “first” or pivotal moment. He’s just another in a series of dancing partners.
5. Coming of Age vs. Coming Out
It’s not often that the LGBT community is treated to a film with a same-sex relationship where the still- taboo nature and possible social repercussions of the relationship aren’t front and center. In the case of Call Me by Your Name, the film transcends the constricting, formulaic tale of a young person struggling with their nature and being bogged down by the stress of “coming out” to their parents and peers.
This generational conflict is dealt with smoothly in the film by painting Elio’s parents as progressive and nurturing rather than adversaries not to be disappointed. This is furthered by Elio’s’ father’s confiding in his son that he recognized how special what he had with Oliver was, and that he himself once had a similar experience in his youth.
Furthermore, not only is Call Me by Your Name thoroughly a coming of age film, but in a league of its own as well. This is due to the film’s strategic departure from several tropes of the established genre; primarily in the character of Elio…
Elio is not the savvy, smooth-talking, beyond-his-years young romantic lead we’re used to. He’s clumsy with his words, he obnoxiously peacocks his musical and historical knowledge; he’s careless and occasionally hurtful and thoroughly inexperienced in what he calls the “things that matter”.
It’s shown at various points in the movie that he has serious issues of self-doubt regarding his social and romantic prowess, such as when he struggles to write Oliver a note that doesn’t come off as too desperate or cliché, culminating in his revelation; “I’m such a pussy…”
Elio’s introversion and neurotic tendencies are sharply contrasted by the social magnetism of Oliver, who seems to be the confident center of attention wherever he goes; garnering the love and admiration not only from Elio’s parents, but from locals and romantic interests alike.
It’s no coincidence that the song on the radio when Elio and his girlfriend Marzia have sex in the attic is Words Don’t Come Easy.
Elio’s first sexual experience with Marzia, though somewhat charming, is incredibly anti-climactic; lasting all of twenty seconds and culminating in the couple’s fits of laughter. This goes in the face of every romantic film convention ever established wherein the “first time” is this sacred, spiritual moment. But as Timothée Chalamet says in another coming of age film from this past year; “you’re going to have so much un-special sex in your life.”
In one key scene between Elio and Marzia, we see an Elio we’ve not before experienced—one of selfishness and conflict, unsure with how to reconcile his infatuation with Oliver with his devotion to Marzia.
Most notably in this scene is Elio’s refusal to speak French to a distraught Marzia when she finds him in Oliver’s shirt. When she asks him, crestfallen, in one of her few English lines of the film, “Am I your girl?” he pathetically shrugs like a difficult child; totally careless about the pain he’s caused her. This is paramount in showing the messiness of young love. People get hurt.
Here again, the film totally detours from the expected conventions of a manufactured conflict between the two. Instead of some endless grudge or Elio fighting to redeem himself in Marzia’s eyes, she comes to sympathize with him, then totally absolves him and the two make up on platonic terms;
If boiled down sufficiently, Call Me by Your Name is essentially the two hour version of “’it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” inasmuch as the protagonists do not live happily ever after; at least not together anyway.
However, the film’s message is presented in the speech by Elio’s father, who states that although Elio is in pain from having lost Oliver that he ought not to shut that pain out and by consequence shut out the joy that they shared. He should let the sorrow take its course, and emerge stronger for it.
Elio seemingly heeds this advice, but in the film’s epilogue, when telephoned by Oliver who informs him he’s engaged to be married the following summer, his sense of loss is reignited and we find him staring into the fireplace, mourning what once was.
As he holds back tears the credits roll, and we can only imagine that the film we’ve just seen is playing in his head as he reflects on what he and Oliver had together.
Call Me by Your Name is a film that knows it can’t have its peach and eat it too; but in some ways it still does. It takes us along for an idyllic, romantic ride of self discovery, but ultimately shatters any chance of “happily ever after” between Oliver and Elio; which gives the film a more nuanced narrative depth.
However, one can infer that Elio will heal in the way that his father advised him to, and armed with this life-changing experience, and the love and support of his parents and friends like Marzia; his life will be better in the long run.
Author Bio: Sam Fraser studied film and French literature at Université de Montréal. He still operates under the illusion that he might one day run into Denis Villeneuve or Xavier Dolan on the métro.