Summer rain, check. Perfect bodies apricating in the sunshine, check. Great characters, check. Great chemistry, check. Great soundtrack, check! Call Me By Your Name will go down in history as one of the most sensitive yet passionate love stories that have graced our screens this past decade. It transcends gay love, it soars above simple lust and explodes in the stratosphere with delicate yet multi-layered emotion, like a precious and precocious child. Like Vimini, Elio’s neighbour in the novel, who unfortunately didn’t make it into the film version, Elio and Oliver’s love story is young, intelligent, ephemeral, but unforgettable. For those in love with the film, reading the book offers another layer to the story, at times comforting, at times unsettling. The book can help one say goodbye to two beloved characters, or at least postpone the farewell until one feels compelled to start the journey over and bask in the sunshine of a perfect Italian summer. Let’s go back one more time, shall we?
The story of Call Me By Your Name takes place in Northern Italy in the summer of 1983. The seductive and intimate connection between 17 year old Elio and 24 year old Oliver is marked from the beginning of the film, when Elio has to give up his own room for the new PhD student, Oliver (l’usurpateur) who comes to live with Elio’s parents during the summer. The intimacy and allure of having someone sleep in his bed is at first apparently alleviated (or is it deeply exacerbated) by Oliver’s aloof attitude and the carefree way he says goodbye, with a simple “Later!” Elio finds this arrogant and offensive, but the rest of his family disagree and so do the other townspeople, whom Oliver befriends with incredible ease. Here, an insightful observation made by Elio’s father, namely that Oliver is a shy person, surprises Elio.
Too shy to make the first step towards knowing Oliver, Elio sees him as everything he is not: a confident, popular, handsome, highly intelligent man, while he himself feels inadequate and deeply insecure. His insecurity may translate to some viewers as arrogance, as he mopes around the house, apparently displeased with his surroundings. But just as Oliver seemed arrogant to him at first, this is a façade. Before long, Elio’s feelings towards Oliver evolve into something which he cannot express yet cannot conceal either. “Is it better to speak or to die?” he astutely conceals his question as a quote from the Heptameron. He fears rejection, but he fears uncertainty more. In a rare flirting scene, made all the more beautiful by its uniqueness, Elio shows off on the piano: after having strummed a Bach piece on the guitar, Elio takes Oliver inside to show him the same piece played on the piano. “You changed it”, Oliver exclaims. “I played it as Lizst would have played it”. Oliver asks: “play the thing you played outside”, Elio changes it again: “I played it the way Buzzoni would have played it if he’d altered Lizst’s version.”
“And what’s wrong with Bach, the way Bach wrote it?”
“Bach never wrote it for the guitar”
This scene captures perfectly how both characters are at the same time playful, yet unsure about playing a real unaltered version of themselves. Oliver tries to find the real unaltered version of Elio, yet Elio is too afraid to show himself as the shy boy he really is, so he dons all these masks, hiding from Oliver behind all his knowledge of classical music, hoping that Oliver would still prefer the original. Indeed, he does and when Elio does play it “the way Bach wrote it”, he adds with a smile that radiates innocence and playfulness: “he dedicated it to his brother”. How can a flirting scene be so innocent and passionate at the same time?
When his admiration and envy for Oliver turns into an almost unbearable passion, Elio sneaks into his bedroom, which has now got the marks of the new person living there, a person new to Elio, yet somehow familiar. For some people scent serves as arousal. Elio seems to be one of those people, for he is smelling Oliver on his newly laundered swimming trunks, craving him from every pore. Perhaps he is tasting the molecules of his unapricated skin. It is a scene pulsating with sensuality and the curiosity of a love that just begins to take shape.
As the Elio and Oliver begin to reveal their true feelings to each other the mating dance is evident, yet not dull. “For you in silence, somewhere in Italy in the mid 80s”. The will they/won’t they game stems not only from both their insecurities, but also from the stigma that being gay carries, especially in the 80s. Oliver says that he knows himself, and that they should be good and not do the unthinkable and sleep together. Yet the attraction, the perfect chemistry is too strong for either of them and it wins. It allows them to ignore all that’s been holding them back, all that’s been holding back all the previous Olivers and Elios from time immemorial. When Elio and Oliver make love and they call each other by the other person’s name, it feels that all unrequited love from the beginning of time until that point had been vindicated. It had finally happened. Love won.
For anyone who has ever experienced the thrill of a first love, the deliciously furtive midnight encounters and passionate embraces, Call Me By Your Name is an almost perfect film, a film which emanates nubile love from its every shot, every summer-by-the-pool orchard-revelling scene. It not only transports the viewer to a world where the perfect first love exists, but where the ideal parents are also there to let you roam free, make your own mistakes and be there for you when you come home with your heart broken, as they knew you would. This is one summer romance that has been so beautifully transported from the pages of the novel onto the celluloid, written with gravitas and sentiment by James Ivory and pieced together by the loving hand of Luca Guadagnino. It takes one’s breath away, it makes one relive their first love vicariously through those of Elio and Oliver. It leaves the viewer with innumerable questions all sprung from love, all having love as their answer.
Is it really possible to meet someone one day that is your equal in every respect? Your mirror, your brother, your friend, your father, your son, your husband, your lover, your equal, yourself? Does this form of love exist in the real world or is it a figment of romantic poets too romantic and with tragical imaginations? We are told that real love takes work, that one needs to be ready to compromise if one wants to have a real long-lasting relationship. But does one want a long-lasting relationship? Or does one conform to glimpses of happiness, so perfect that can make up for lifetimes of loneliness? Is a long-lasting relationship too mundane for romantic lovers? Is the completeness of a perfect love too intense to be longer than a day or a week? Do people still dream about one or two perfect days they had over the course of a lifetime and wonder what might have happened if those days had been ten or twenty or a thousand? If there had been ten thousand perfect days would they still count as perfect? If Elio and Oliver had extended their relationship over the course of many more summers, many more Rome days, many more perfect days, would they have discovered that they weren’t as in perfect harmony with each other as us, the viewer were led to believe?
So many questions arise and so many hurts are healed, and many more hurts are found. Is such passion ever real or has Andre Aciman created yet another utopia for us romantics to swoon over? In the end it matters not, for the perfect summer love Elio and Oliver lived with such intensity is enough to last a lifetime.
Having now finished reading the book I feel I’ve been violently bled dry of all emotion while at the same time had an avalanche of emotion dropped on me. All happening in quick succession: meeting and falling in love with two great characters and saying goodbye to them, while feeling their pain, joy, passion ecstasy, growing up, growing old, loving. Living. Loving. Love. There is nothing more sacred than love.