film

‘Parce que c’était lui, parce que c’était moi’: symbologies of desire, identity and heartbreak in Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Call Me By Your Name.’

Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Call My By Your Name’ (2017) chronicles the story of Elio and Oliver, two Jewish boys who fall in love during a hot summer in Crema, Italy. Based on the novel by André Aciman, Call Me By Your Name tells the tale of Oliver, a graduate student who arrives in Italy to spend the summer with Mr Perlman and his family, to assist him in academic matters and further his studies within the realm of Classics and Archaeology. Oliver not only studied Archaeology, but formed a relationship with his son, Elio. A film with many accolades, including a nomination for Best Picture at the 90th Academy Awards, Call Me By Your Name is the tearjerker that broke audiences’ hearts all over the world. A love story that breaks boundaries, this essay will explore the themes and symbologies of desire, identity and heartbreak.

Desire

Ageless ambiguity. As if they’re daring you to desire them

I would argue that desire is the most common theme throughout Call Me By Your Name. At the beginning, Elio’s desire seems to be slow burning, he’s confused by his feelings, almost in denial and there even seems to be some animosity between Elio and Oliver. Arguably, that animosity stems from the desire to suppress the feelings they are having. But as the film progresses, so does their romantic interest in each other.

The discovery of their feelings for each other is paralleled against the common theme of discovery of hellenistic and roman sculpture: the reasoning behind Oliver’s visit to Crema.  Oliver, Elio and his father, Mr Perlman, take a trip to Lake Garda, whereby they dredge a shipwrecked bronze of a young man, a kouros from the water. A poignant scene in the movie, this imagery is seemingly repeated during Elio and Oliver’s time together. For example, there are many scenes where Oliver is in bodies of water (i.e. the pool in the Perlman’s garden). In one particularly reflective scene, the camera shows Oliver lying face down in the water, a reaction to something that Elio had said. The close up shot portrays his back and shoulders whilst Elio looks on. Drawing a link between these two particular scene suggests that much like Oliver is discovering the hellenistic history at Lake Garda, Elio is discovering the feelings that he has for Oliver. 

As Mr Perlman studies slides of sculptures with Oliver, he reflects, ‘ageless ambiguity, as if they’re daring you to desire them.’ This particular quote is an apparent symbol of Elio’s influence on Oliver. As aforementioned, Elio’s feelings and desire for Oliver starts to grow and in turn, much as Mr Perlman states, Elio dares Oliver to reciprocate, reflected in scenes of Elio leaning in to kiss Oliver, even when Oliver states that they must ‘be good.’ André Aciman’s ‘Call Me By Your Name,’ the novel on which the movie is based, has received a wealth of criticism due to the age gap between Oliver and Elio, Oliver being 24 and Elio being 17. The use of ‘ageless’ in the movie suggests a response to this criticism: that love has no age, that desire has no age. There are a wealth of obvious representations that depict the desire between the two protagonists, but classical desire and hellenistic symbology are arguably the two elements that subtly reinforce this theme. 

Identity

‘Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine’

The theme of identity arguably appears hand-in-hand with identity, most obviously but not limited to the title of the movie: Call Me By Your Name. Guadagnino’s use of language and linguistics within the film is the element which I would argue most strongly enforces the theme of Identity.

Firstly, it would be difficult to discuss this film without discussing the title and arguably the most important quote: ‘call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.’ Through this simple imperative, Guadagnino blurs the lines between the two characters. Their aforementioned desires have joined them together as one, both physically and linguistically. This is also further visually reinforced when the audience are presented with a mid-shot of Elio wearing the Star of David, something which we, as the audience, have repeatedly seen on Oliver throughout the film. Guadagnino pushes the boundaries of religion to visually blur the lines, too.

‘Je pense que les gens qui lisent cachent ce qu’ils sont’ 

One of my favourite elements of the movie is the wealth of European languages that are spoken. A noticeable linguistic element of the film that represents identity is Elio’s use of English. Notably, with his friends and family, Elio seems to speak predominantly Italian (with his mother and Mafalda) and French (with Marzia). The only other character with whom he speaks only English is Oliver, thus linguistically connecting them, as previously mentioned with regard to their names. Elio also speaks English with his father, the character who seemingly connects Elio and Oliver (as the purpose of Oliver’s trip to Crema is to work with Mr Perlman). With Marzia, the French girl who seemingly would have become Elio’s girlfriend had he not discovered his desires for Oliver, he only speaks French. It seems that this creates a barrier between the two of them (as French is not Elio’s mother tongue), and could be a symbol of Elio hiding his true identity and thus desires from Marzia. This is further reinforced in her comment, ‘je pense que les gens qui lisent cachent ce qu’ils sont’ (‘People who read are kind of secretive. They hide who they really are.’) This seems to be true of the relationship between Elio and Marzia, as for a long time Elio conceals his true desires from her, even engaging in sexual relations with her. 

Heartbreak

‘Some things stay the same only by changing’

Which leads us onto the discussion of heartbreak.  Spoiler alert: the film ends in heartbreak. Throughout the film, Guadagnino makes continuous use of food imagery to convey deeper meaning to the plot. On Oliver’s first morning in Italy, he clumsily breaks into boiled eggs at the breakfast table whilst Elio looks on curiously, seemingly representing the barriers breaking between them little-by-little as the plot moves forward. However, the symbology of the peach seems to be the most utilised. There are many analogies and articles available that detail the sexual connotations of this, something which I won’t delve into today, but the use of the peach in particular to me, ultimately presented the theme of heartbreak and a coming of age love story in the most effective way. Elio eats peaches throughout the movie, until the pinnacle scene of him breaking apart the peach and performing a sexual act with it: representative of his growing feelings toward Oliver which in finality, ends with sexual relations between them. Peaches are easily bruised, much like Elio’s feelings and emotions during this journey of discovering his first, true love. Elio is left with a bruised heart due to Oliver’s departure, and ultimately, a bruised ego upon learning that Oliver has decided to marry with a woman. 

A common theme in European romance films, Guadagnino continuously uses the symbol of nostalgia and plays on the audience’s memory to emphasise the trope of heartbreak. The use of non-diegetic sound and, in particular, the soundtrack of the film, is used tactically by Guadagnino to encourage the audience to relate two separate scenes: the first time Elio and Oliver had sexual relations, and the final scene in which Elio stares into the fire, after learning that Elio has in fact gotten married. In both of these scenes, ‘Visions of Gideon’ by Sufjan Stevens plays, not only a beautiful song but an especially heartbreaking one when concentrating on the symbology of the lyrics. The song is used in both scenes to tactically draw on the memories of the audience, who will remember the earlier scene and feel enhanced emotion for the fact that Elio and Oliver have transitioned from lovers to strangers. The use of ‘Visions of Gideon’ and the sadness in the song within the first scene during their sexual relations could even be considered as a foreshadowing tactic, suggesting the ultimate sadness at the end of the movie. I personally consider the final scene to be the most beautiful of the whole movie, despite the wealth of beautiful Italian scenery and nature in the remainder. The length of the scene should, in theory, feel uncomfortable, but for me it was gentle, heartbreaking and effective in representing both Elio’s despair and fondness for the memories he shared with Oliver. Elio’s ever-changing facial expression along with the soundtrack playing in the background, suggests the memories evoking in his mind, as the prior scenes are evoked for the audience, and creates the ultimate nostalgia, sadness yet melancholy for a summer that is now over. Finally, Guadagnino interjects diegetic sound to break Elio out of his trance as his mother gently coaxes ‘Elio…’ as she prepares the table for Hannukkah. It seems that life, does indeed, go on. 

I would argue that Call Me By Your Name is one of the greatest films I have watched in my life so far. The characters, the plot, the ultimate sadness yet happiness of it stayed with me for months after watching it. Guadagnino is skilled in his use of speech and sound, cinematic imagery and symbologies of nature to reflect the desire, identity and heartbreak of the protagonists. Whilst the wealth of emotions within the film culminate into sadness and heartbreak in Elio, in the words of his father, ‘but to make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste.’ 

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