Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 film adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel is a work near-and-dear to me. To be more bang on, I chose the film as the best work of the previous decade — 2010–2019. Writing, “the sun-drenched vignettes, Sufjan Stevens’ sorrowful composition, or either of the actor’s poignant performances are not what has kept this film in my thoughts since I first saw it. It is the speech Ellio’s father gives him after Oliver departs, a soft-spoken speech between an emotionally open father and a vulnerable son.”
While that summation of my affection for Guadagnino’s achievement is true, I figured providing more context to that affection might do me some good. And when looking at Call Me By Your Name, it’s difficult not to relish the craft exhibited from its acute framing. It’s a film ripe for a semester of study. The chief thesis being the paradox of artists, specifically film auteurs disappearing from their work. It’s challenging to spotlight such a style, but not impossible.
In the film, the cinematography acts as a key example of Guadagnino’s secreting of his artistic touch. The camera is baked in simplicity, an unsentimental presentation of characters inhabiting the space between the black lines. Guadagnino lodges his characters within the confines of realism without removing his work from the ambitions of beauty. The camera follows the action, but in a way, an observer might. The editing isn’t manipulative, nor is Guadagnino ever using the camera to reflect himself. The camera, instead, functions as a window to their environment. An environment that Guadagnino captures with warm, tactile, and alluring texture. The desire for summer afternoons becomes paralleled with that of Elio (Timothée Chalamet) or Oliver’s (Armie Hammer) respective desires for love or sex. It acts as the space in which Guadagnino patiently allows life to exhume from a distance between the camera and the actors. He allows the characters’ emotions to become charged in a way few films are — leading Elio to tentatively act upon his feelings, not with words, but with his actions, similar to me.
When watching Call Me By Your Name for the first time, I was barely on the cusp of grasping at the identity of my own sexuality. I hadn’t declared myself as one way or the other, nor had I been honest with myself about the feeling I shared for a dear friend who had been tugging me out of my preconceptions of sexuality through actions and not words. I was still unsure of who I was, much like Elio.
Amidst this first viewing, I couldn’t help but anticipate some force, some person, or an institution of some kind to inevitably challenge Elio and Oliver’s affair. For any story that features the exploration of sexuality, it comes as a genre expectation. The foreboding dread is to be reminded that not all parties view love as an immutable, undefined emotion shared between any sex or gender identity. When that didn’t occur, and Guadagnino’s narrative became more evident with its theme and its narrative curve, I found myself falling into his hands like that of a reader who succumbed to a writer’s trance — hypnotic almost.
It was a revelatory feeling, all of which was punctuated with a critical scene that poignantly pierced me in a way that only art is capable of achieving.
Guadagnino’s work’s resonance derives not only from the romance itself but also from the lingering sensation that it can’t last. There’s no one to interfere or any organization to step in as the antagonist to their story. Instead, the first hints of such an ending come from Guadagnino’s evocation of silence, the long breaths between Elio and Oliver. It’s a feeling of melancholy that tinges even the sweetest of moments, or in the case of a scene involving the taste of a ripened peach, the more daringly honest of scenes. They know what they’ve found has to end; we know it as well.
Soon after this ineludible departure, Elio sits next to his father, Samuel (Michael Stuhlbarg). The sunny skies and tree-lined roads of northern Italy are now painted with a grey overcast, and Mr. Perlman asks the paternal questions about the final trip Elio and Olver shared. Then he mentions their friendship, something that causes Elio to react with an evasive answer. Before his father begins to peel back his knowledge of their relationship and its truth, saying, “You’re too smart not to know how rare, how special what you two had was.”
Elio shrugs him off again. His father continues to reveal his hand, speaking in french now, “Because he was he because I was I.” Elio diverts attention again, but his father persists. Before finally, Elio opens himself up, allowing his father to comfort his wounded heart. Then, he says,
“When you least expect it, nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot, just remember: I am here. Right now, you may not want to feel anything — maybe you never wished to feel anything, and maybe it’s not to me that you’ll want to speak about these things. But feel something, you obviously did.”
“You had a beautiful friendship,” Elio’s father continues. “Maybe more than a friendship, and I envy you… In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, to pray that their sons land on their feet. But I am not such a parent. In your place, if there is pain, nurse it. And if there is
“You had a beautiful friendship,” Elio’s father continues. “Maybe more than a friendship, and I envy you… In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, to pray that their sons land on their feet. But I am not such a parent. In your place, if there is pain, nurse it. And if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out. Don’t be brutal with it. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything ― what a waste!”
“Have I spoken out of turn?” He asks. Elio sways his head horizontally to provide an answer, before his father continues, “Then I’ll say one more thing. It’ll clear the air: I may have come close, but I never had what you two have. Something always held me back or stood in the way. How you live your life is your business. Just remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out, and as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it.”
His voice chokes before saying, “right now, there’s sorrow. Pain. Don’t kill it and with it the joy you’ve felt.” Then he finally takes a breath, as Elio whispers a question, “does mom know?” Samuel whispers back, “I don’t think she does.”
In total, it’s a five-minute scene, but one I’ve watched too many times to count. Out of jealousy, envy, even romanticization. When I came out to my parents, it wasn’t the expected outcome of banishment or gospelized arguments against my acceptance of who I am and who I would become. I told my mother first; her reaction was still. She wasn’t cold or malicious, just very still, as if the shock froze her in place for some time. She told me she’d break the news to my father, who reacted similarly but far more impactful. Instead of coming home to shout, scream, vilify, he left and didn’t come back for some time, not speaking to me for the remainder of the day. The next day, he spoke to me in a haphazard form of acceptance that read as a father’s love with warning signs. He warned me of the choice I was making, how his Christian God would feel about it, what the bible tells his flock. But he still loved me, at least that’s what he told me.
For any of us who have to “come out,” who have to “break the news” to our loved ones, there is a certain sense of hesitance, even anxiety. Even those who shouldn’t feel this way, knowing their family is not one to dwell on these kinds of circumstances. We still become afraid of their knowing, their potential reactions. All we want is to be heard, to be seen for the first time as our true selves, and to be embraced for such a wonderful evolution of our identity.
I saw Call Me By Your Name in January of 2018; I came out almost two months later. And it’s hard not for me to connect the dots and know that this scene of acceptance is what pushed me to ask for the same thing. Though their response did not match the tenderness of Stuhlbarg’s words, it is still something I longed for, something I still long for in some respects. The words are potent enough by themselves, but in Stuhlbarg’s mouth, they become poetry — vestiges of a weathered existence that manifest as a guiding hand for a life not yet touched by the reflection of time.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Stuhlbarg describes it thus,
“You never know how a piece of text is going to live in you when you try to absorb it for all of its weight, I don’t think there was a conscious choice on my part for it to be any more or less professorial. I think the text does a lot of that for me, so maybe I was just concerned with it coming from a true place, and that he was choosing his words carefully. In another actor’s mouth, it would be different. … I think the language speaks for itself. I tried to let it live in me over the five or so weeks we had because we shot the movie in chronological order. [I wanted] to let it resonate with me that way, I thought it could be said.”
I needed that wisdom, that embracement — more than any other time perhaps. My heart was too frail, my mind was too burdened by the daunting discovery that I had not known my true self for all this time, and I was too weak to carry these realizations alone. Some of us eventually get our embracement from those who once pushed us away, others find it elsewhere in friends or those we share our bodies with, but I found mine inside the framing of the streaking sunlight and winding roads of Northern Italy.
As a fellow art historian to Mr. Perlman says, “Cinema is a mirror of reality, and it is a filter.” In this time of my life, Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name was both, a mirror of what I wanted from my life and the needed filter of artistry to provide a beautiful monologue of what that might look like had it happened. We all deserve to have our voices heard; some of us need it more than others. At that moment, all I could’ve asked for was to be listened to, to be seen, to be told everything was going to be okay. My parents didn’t tell me this. No one did, but Guadganino. Art is the one who told me it was going to be okay. And I was.