‘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.


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. 


‘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. 


‘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.’ 


This is a Man’s World? The Characterisation of Women in Relation to the Presence of Men in Woody Allen’s ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona.’

Woody Allen is a man of extreme controversy and his cinema is no different. With his name constantly in and out of the headlines, his familial issues and intricacies on display for the world to see, and his somewhat unconventional relationship with his adoptive daughter, the inner-workings of Allen’s mind make for some pretty interesting films.

Whilst his actions and opinions might not align with my own personal view points, I am a huge fan of his earlier works, namely ‘Annie Hall’ (1977), ‘Manhattan Murder Mystery’ (1993) and, more recently, ‘Whatever Works’ (2009).  As time has progressed, Allen’s cinema seems to emit more and more taboo and unconventional ideologies, which gives the audience ample opportunity for analysis and speculation. With this in mind, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I decided to indulge myself in one of Allen’s films that I hadn’t yet seen, ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ (2008). Being irrevocably in love with Spain and Iberian culture, as a Spanish speaker, and as a huge fan of Javier Bardem, particularly after seeing Aranoa’s ‘Los Lunes al Sol’ (2002), how could I not spend a Sunday afternoon in Barcelona with the likes of Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson?

I want to focus this article on the anti-feminist symbologies created by Allen in ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona,’ and make no mistake, there are plenty. Namely I aim to focus on the characterisation of the female protagonists and their storylines based on the presence of the male characters, namely Juan Antonio and Doug. Nevertheless, I don’t wish to critique the cinematography of the film. The warm filter that washes over every scene to transcend a hot, lazy day in mid-August Barcelona, the interjections of Spanish, particularly from Maria Elena to add that extra tinge of authenticity and the entanglement of three, even four protagonists to eventually form a love affair typical of romantic comedies from Hollywood. All the elements exist to make this film worthy of Saturday night viewing with your best friends, a glass of wine and a bowl of popcorn. However, these elements are superficial, and once you delve beneath the surface of these peripheral elements, Allen transcends a lot more than just Summer sun and sexual dalliances between an American tourist and a Spaniard.

To begin, and seemingly the first and most obvious cinematic technique that Allen employs which ultimately derails any feminist values or feminist theory being portrayed in the film, is his use of dialogue and narration. The way he uses these techniques construct rigid character types for the two female protagonists in the film, and Maria Elena (Cruz) when her character is introduced later on in the film, which are ultimately unbreakable and suggest the existence of these very characters depends only on the existence of male characters within the film.

Beginning with Vicky and Cristina, the narrator from the offset opens the dialogue for the rigid characters types to take their comfortable place within the plot.

Vicky is described as completing her Masters degree in Catalan Identity, a positive element to her character being that she is seemingly a well educated woman, right? Wrong. The narrator (Christopher Evan Welch) moves on to explain to the audience how Vicky ‘was grounded and realistic.’ Two respectable adjectives to describe her personality, however he explains how Vicky ‘had become engaged to Doug because he was decent and successful and understood the beauty of commitment.’ Thus Vicky is not grounded and realistic due to her academic ambitions nor the career they may lead to, but due to her choice in man, ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’’s first nod toward women’s character traits and elements of identity being dependent on a man. This is ultimately continued in the latter half of the film through the introduction of both Vicky’s fiancee and later husband Doug and her classmate who she decidedly goes out on a date with, both of which are intertwined with her grappling desire for Juan Antonio; her storyline only continues due to her involvement with the male characters which, arguably, is the only element of the plot line which delegates any substance at all to Vicky as a protagonist of the film.

On the other hand, Allen does not so much as attribute a Masters in the Arts to Cristina, in fact in attributes nothing more than her fixation on men and relationships. The narrator describes how Cristina had spent sixth months writing and directing a film about love, but dismisses this quickly in describing how she hated it in the end, and then informs the audience that she ‘had just broken up with yet another boyfriend and longed for a change of scenery.’ There isn’t much hope for our two female protagonists, right? Once again, Allen constructs a female character around the premise of men and relationships and ultimately, portrays Cristina as a hopeless romantic, and quite literally, hopeless: throughout the rest of the narrative, Cristina is flighty, unsure of herself and ultimately lacking in any depth that could drive the plot line forward.

Maria Elena presents a different character type, nevertheless still completely driven, arguably the most out of all three of the characters, by male presence. The first time the audience is introduced to Maria Elena is when Juan Antonio receives a call that she is in the hospital after harming herself, and when we eventually come face-to-face with her, she is erratic, emotional and arguably mentally unwell. Dialogue, as with the other two characters, becomes increasingly important in that the first things we hear Maria Elena discuss are the flaws in her relationship with Juan Antonio and the way in which he affected her. This frames Juan Antonio and their toxic relationship as perhaps being to blame for her poor mental wellbeing, and as Allen frames her, her craziness. Her crazy and erratic nature (Allen frames as being caused by Juan Antonio and their relationship), is what embodies Maria Elena and is arguably the only element of substance, as I keep referring to it, that Maria Elena has in the story. Thus, once more, a female character in Vicky Cristina Barcelona is portrayed as having a plot line dependent on the existence and actions of a man. 

Secondly, a cinematic approach that Allen continues to use and manipulate throughout ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ is the strategic use of costume and framing in relation to the female characters. Once again sequencing Vicky, Cristina and Maria Elena, Allen continues to embody the women with their rigid character types through careful use of their clothing, the colours of said clothing and the framing of each female within shots predominantly with Juan Antonio.

Vicky, from the outset, wears clothing that could be considered stereotypically ‘sensible,’ arguably even modest. I quote the adjective of ‘sensible’ in inverted commas, because in what world should a woman’s choice of clothing depict her character type or level of value within a cinematic plot line? Unfortunately, as theorised by the likes of Stuart Hall and Roland Barthes, these are the codes and conventions that audiences are conditioned to respond to. Vicky’s covered shoulders and cargo pants/jeans rarely reveal much skin, in contrast to her counterpart Cristina (analysis of which I will delve into shortly), suggesting her mindset to be, as aforementioned, modest and could even suggest a nod toward her loyalty to Doug, though this is largely questioned in the latter of the film due to her dalliances with her classmate and Juan Antonio, also solidifying Allen’s use of the male characters to drive forward Vicky’s storyline. These connotations are further enforced in one particular scene, whereby Vicky is due to meet with Juan Antonio, and the audience observes her making her outfit choice, in the end opting for her usual cargo pants and a modest top. We’re in Oviedo/Barcelona in the Summer, right? Am I mistaken in thinking the heat during a Spanish Summer may leave a woman in cargo pants and shirt wishing to be in Antarctica instead? In all, these costume choices only reenforce the perception that Vicky embodies the respectable woman with only the utmost loyalty to her fiancee, and even her actions may deviate from this character type, the costume remains in place to give us, as an audience, the subtle reminder and reenforcement of this pre-established stereotype.

Cristina reinforces her predetermined character type through costume, too, however as we have already established earlier on, her character type differs a lot to that of Vicky’s. From the outset, Cristina is framed in shots wearing vests, exposing both her chest and her shoulders. You may be thinking, what is wrong with that? We’ve already established the setting of the film; a hot, Spanish summer, so why shouldn’t she wear a vest? Totally, I agree. Women can wear whatever they like, and dress weather appropriately, right? In the context of ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona,’ wrong. In a lot of mid-shots of Cristina, she exposes a lot more cleavage than Vicky, Allen arguably constructing his film in line with Laura Mulvey’s Male Gaze Theory which I will make heavier use of later on in this article (what would a feminist theory article in relation to film be without integrating Mulvey’s words of wisdom?). Could it be that Allen makes this costume choice in order to reinforce the flighty elements of Cristina’s character? He attributes not much else to her, which leaves the conscious audience questioning whether her more revealing of outfits is Allen’s attempt at attributing some depth of character to her or whether he is, in fact, constructing a character for the purpose of the Male Gaze. The contrast between Vicky and Cristina with regard to their costume is largely apparent in the scene whereby they first meet Juan Antonio – the restaurant scene. Cristina wears a khaki coloured vest top with exposed chest and shoulders, seductively sipping her wine, whilst Vicky wears her usual shirt and is the more pragmatic of the two when Juan Antonio approaches and states, ‘lets fly to Oviedo.’ Note the costume of Juan Antonio in this scene – his red shirt connoting both danger and passion, and pop of colour against the warm, neutral colours of both the restaurant itself and the girls’ costumes screaming out to the audience that this is the character that will drive forward the plot line.

Maria Elena holds some similarities to Cristina in Allen’s choice of costume, namely in the scene whereby Cristina takes photos of Maria Elena. She wears what seems to be a piece of underwear, similar to that of a babydoll, and like Cristina, shows a lot more skin than Vicky, supporting my previous suggestion that these characters feed into the Male Gaze. However, one particular scene that I’d like to focus on, which I believe embodies Maria Elena’s character and supports my earlier point that her character is based on crazy and erratic personality traits in relation to Juan Antonio and their relationship, is the scene in the garden when Maria Elena returns home. She wears a white gown, white connoting purity and innocence and perhaps even virginity, but the smudged mascara under her eyes, the cigarette in her hand and the conscious stream of abusive Spanish leaving her lips corrupts these connotations, representing the corruption that perhaps her relationship with Juan Antonio has had on her character. Once again, Allen uses costume and particularly colour of costume in this scene, to convey the link between the female personality and plot line and the male characters, in this case Juan Antonio.

Aaah, and then there is that plot element. The one we could not avoid addressing in this article, the plot element that seemingly appeared out of thin air – the relationship between Juan Antonio, Maria Elena and Cristina. Namely the scene in which Cristina and Maria Elena kiss, is the scene which seems to be the most problematic. I have argued that the storylines of the females in ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ is driven predominantly by the presence of males within the film, however I have also argued with respect to Cristina’s character specifically that she is perhaps constructed with the Male Gaze in mind, and Mulvey’s theory specifically becomes important when considering the kissing scene. There is no developed growth of a relationship per se, nor a logical reasoning as to why the two women decide to become intimate, be that with Juan Antonio involved or not, this scene and particular plot line seems to, as I have already said, come out of nowhere. Thus I would argue that the females, in this scene particularly, and their kiss are sexualised for the purpose of the Male Gaze, their kiss is sexualised and feeds into a male fascination with lesbianism. Perhaps this is a bold claim to make, yet not such a bold one when considering the prior construct of Cristina’s character in particular. Thus whilst it is argued that the plot line and the very existence of the female characters depend on the presence of men, the only scene that is not driven by Juan Antonio or otherwise said-male, is constructed through the lens of the Male Gaze. Perhaps the superficiality of this scene is further solidified in the latter whereby Cristina leaves their polyamorous relationship by stating that she is sure that this isn’t what she wants.

In all, I argue that without the existence of male characters in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the female characters would have little value in driving any plot forward. Their characterisations are limited to relationships and feelings toward the opposite sex, and any possible achievement they may have or be working for (a Masters degree, producing a video), is either dismissed or portrayed as of lesser importance in comparison to their relationships with men. I’m sure there are critics that could argue that whilst the female protagonists storylines couldn’t progress without the presence of the male protagonist, the same could be said in reverse? You may be correct, what would be Juan Antonio’s plot line be without Maria Elena’s abusive rants and shooting of a gun, or Vicky and Cristina’s arrival in Barcelona, but the difference lies in his establishment of character – his art, his house, his ability to travel to Oviedo on his jet. Without him, the girls never would have made the trip and their summers would likely have passed without incident. So, in the case of ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona,’ this really is a man’s world.