“I Know Myself”: Falling in Love and Growing Up in “Call Me by Your Name”
The morning after his arrival in that place “somewhere in Northern Italy,” Oliver (Armie Hammer) wakes up in the Perlmans’ villa and heads for breakfast. The year is 1983, the day is bright and hazy, and out by the orchard, Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), his wife Annella (Amira Casar), and 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) are waiting. Hungry and jet-lagged, Oliver devours a soft-boiled egg, but when Annella offers him a second, he politely refuses: “I know myself too well, if I have a second I am going to have a third and then a fourth, and then you’re just going to have to roll me out of here.” Annella and Perlman chuckle, Elio does not. Something in those words perturbs him. “He has never heard someone Oliver’s age say, I know myself,” the caption of James Ivory’s Oscar-winning adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel reads. “It’s somewhat intimidating.”
It all happens in the blink of an eye. Elio hears those words and stares at Oliver for a split second, a look both searching and wanting that zeroes in on the Star of David hanging from the guest’s neck and, underneath the shirt, his naked skin. It is the first time Elio seems to really notice Oliver, not as the usurpateur that would kick him out of his bedroom for the following six weeks but as an object of a still unarticulated desire. It’s a moment as crucial as it is brief: it predates their rendezvous by the house trough-turned-swimming pool, their bicycle rides in and out of Crema, their first kiss, their first night together, that peach scene, and that achingly powerful goodbye trip to Bergamo. It is the first time Elio sees Oliver, and in that silent couple of seconds he spends staring at his figure, he acknowledges something that he both lacks and longs for: the ability to confidently know and talk about one’s own self.
A disclaimer: I have watched a good amount of movies in the past 27 years, but I cannot remember any of them hitting me as hard as Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name (2017). As for every other movie that I have loved, my infatuation starts with one scene. In Call Me by Your Name, it starts with that glance Elio gives Oliver at the breakfast table, a testament of Timothée Chalamet’s effortless ability to embody, through glances as much as words, that feeling of wonder and fear that congeals in one’s face the moment the attraction for another person reveals to us something new about ourselves — the moment we realize there’s something we lack, and we turn to the person we love to fill that void and grow.
It takes Elio a few days to tell Oliver what he feels for him. It happens by a World War I memorial. Their bikes parked by the statue, Elio displays his knowledge of the Battle of the Piave River to a bemused Oliver, prompting him to ask: “is there anything you don’t know?” Elio chuckles, shakes his head, takes another drag from his cigarette: “If only you knew how little I know about the things that matter.” A 17-year-old fluent in three languages and proficient in guitar and piano, an enfant prodige that his family invites others to marvel at — he is completely at a loss when it comes to talking about himself and his feelings. Upon hastily dismissing Oliver’s interest in his rendition of a Bach suite in an earlier scene, he heads to his bedroom and fills a journal with self-deprecating memos (“I was too harsh”) and when the time comes to confront Oliver after their first kiss, the note he slips under Oliver’s door (“Can’t stand the silence — need to speak to you”) receives a teasing response: “Grow up. I’ll see you at midnight.”
Watching the way Elio interacts with Oliver before and after that late-night rendezvous, I kept returning to that reply. We fall in love with people who inspire in us a certain longing, a feeling we then proceed to articulate and act upon. Sometimes it is out of lack: we recognize in our partner something we do not have and want to master, the same way I’d imagine part of Elio’s infatuation must have owed to a desire to have Oliver’s exuberant confidence and charisma. And when we love, filling that void becomes a quest to improve and nurture something within us — to become better than we were before. We love, and through love, grow up.
Elio does grow up through his love for Oliver. As he voices his feelings, he becomes more attuned to the world around him and the space that he occupies in it. Acknowledging and articulating what he feels for Oliver gives him the confidence to physically stand up to his desires. Look at the way he invites Oliver to enter that river, only a few minutes after he opens up to him before the war monument, and still a few more before they first kiss. Notice how his backbone straightens as he comes into the sunlight, daring Oliver to get closer to him. In a 360-degree spin from that breakfast scene, it is Oliver who’s intimidated now, lowering his eyes as he wades his way out of the water.
There is no explicit coming out moment in Call Me by Your Name. Elio’s parents certainly notice their son’s attraction to Oliver — and realize the feeling is mutual — but the topic is only mentioned in two scenes, and it is Professor Perlman who brings it up in both. On the eve of Elio and Oliver’s first kiss, sitting on a couch with his wife and son, he reminds Elio he can always talk to them about anything. And in that final monologue, a scene that will likely go down as one of Stuhlbarg’s finest performances, he warns Elio not to suppress his grief. “Right now there’s sorrow, pain — don’t kill it, and with it the joy you’ve felt.” Learning how to love also means being able to deal with the pain that ensues after love is over. It means being able to resist the temptation of hiding it inside a closet and learning to embrace it the way we cherish happier memories.
I saw Call Me by Your Name for the first time on a Thursday night in December 2017. I had missed its Sundance premiere and fell ill the morning of its New York Film Festival screening. When the U.S. release day came, I booked myself a ticket at the New York Regal Union Square. I went alone and had the luxury of having empty seats around me, meaning I could take notes and bawl throughout the screening without anyone noticing. In the days and weeks that followed, I tried to make sense of the emotional wreckage that it left me in. I watched it again, baffled at how those feelings grew stronger every time. I took more notes and tried to jot down a few paragraphs to no avail.
For the people that I’ve recommended it to, I say Call Me by Your Name is a lot more than the gay love story some have conveniently pigeonholed it as. By that I mean: it is a film that pays justice to homosexual love in a way few others have done before it, but it is not a story that only the LGBTQ community can empathize with. Like all great stories destined to outlive us, its scope is universal. The path Elio and Oliver undertake as they fall in love with each other, the sense of growth that they’ve achieved by the time they call each other by their names, is something that any of us can relate to, independently of our gender or sexual orientation. Anytime I am asked to talk about what this film means to me, words somehow fail me. I too, I suppose, still don’t quite know how to articulate the things that matter any better than Elio could.