Call Me by Your Name and Empathy at the Movies

Sony Pictures Classics

When I went to see Call Me by Your Name it had been a long day. A long week, month, autumn, year. I had been tipped by a friend that it was the last showing of the film in our local cinema. Nostalgic for the summer, and charmed by the trailer’s images of Italy, ‘80s pop, antiquity, and fruit, I cancelled my evening plans and took myself on a date to the movies.

Two hours later, the screen went dark and the room went light. I stumbled home, enamoured by the film’s final flickering shot. Flashing images of blue skies, rippling pools, and plump peaches looped in my head. The film was a gut-punch. I was overwhelmed by a feeling that was as physical as it was emotional.  

A week later, the loop was still playing in my head. Then, two weeks.

What had Call Me by Your Name done?  

i. the usurper

Call Me by Your Name is about a 17-year-old, Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet). Elio is precocious, polyglottal, and pretentious, with a liberal mother (Amira Casar), a professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg), and a vocabulary that wouldn’t be out of place in an E.M. Forster or Evelyn Waugh novel. The family spend their summers “somewhere in Northern Italy,” as the title card tells us, in an open home surrounded by peach trees that breathes with family, friends, and workers. The house is Elio’s castle. What does he do? According to him, he “reads books, transcribes music, swims in the river, goes out at night. Waits for the summer to end.” He is a musical prodigy spending his days lazily lounging in the sun and playing Bach al fresco. There is a wall around his privileged teenage existence.

The first line of the film—“The usurper”—is uttered by Elio as he looks down from his high bedroom window at his parents greeting their guest for the summer. A professor of classical antiquity, Mr. Perlman invites a doctoral student to his family home every summer to work on a project while Elio is uprooted from his bedroom to watch on, lonely and bored. This year, the usurper of his home, his bedroom, and his father’s affection is Oliver (Armie Hammer).

A magnificent specimen of masculinity, Oliver’s energy radiates; a perfectly unmatched complement to Elio’s self-contained lithe frame. Oliver swaggers, sweaty and physical. His shorts are too tight and his shirt is too open. He is all skin and hair and muscle. He is built like the statues he studies; a queer John Wayne pursuing a PhD. Jetlagged, he passes out on Elio’s bed when he arrives, slumbering all evening and night. In the morning, he breaks his fast by gorging on runny boiled eggs. “Later!” is how he says goodbye, careless and overtly American, much to Elio’s disdainful amusement. Call Me by Your Name is based on André Aciman’s novel, which opens with this “Later!” as Elio remembers their first meeting:

‘Later!’ The word, the voice, the attitude. I’d never heard anyone use ‘later’ to say goodbye before. It sounded harsh, curt, and dismissive, spoken with the veiled indifference of people who may not care to see or hear from you again.

[…]

You watch, I thought, this is how he’ll say goodbye to us when the time comes.”

Everything in Call Me By Your Name is a Later. Director Luca Guadagnino takes his time to unfold the film’s romance. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom lingers on the Italian landscape with shots of fruit bearing trees, wind, sunlight hitting a wall. The pastoral takes on an eroticism, building in anticipation as we patiently watch Elio and Oliver fall in love.

Uncertain of how the other feels, Elio and Oliver attempt to feel out each other’s rhythms: a touch, a look, a curt word. When they go dancing, Elio watches Oliver with a girl, and we know that Oliver is just as watchful, aware of being under Elio’s gaze. They never acknowledge each other on the dance floor, but their bodies circulate, moving in and out of each other’s orbit like opposing magnets.  

As the film progresses, Oliver’s “Later!”s begin to crack. As Elio and Oliver grow increasingly infatuated with each other, his boyish carelessness takes on a performative quality, as do his relationships with a few of the local girls. Anticipation becomes almost unbearable—and then Elio makes a move. ii. “Do I dare to eat a peach?”

After consummating his love affair with Oliver, Elio takes a peach—large, hairy, fleshy—to an attic room. It’s the room where we earlier saw him have sex with Marzia, his somewhat-girlfriend, and where he reads; his own private space apart from the rest of the house. Filled with desire after his night with Oliver, Elio weighs the peach in his hand. He thinks. He presses his thumbs into the flesh and fishes the stone out of the mess of juice and fibre. He takes the peach and, off camera, masturbates with it, fucking it and filling it with himself. He finishes, leaves it on the table, and falls asleep.

In the film’s garden of Eden, peaches are everywhere. Hanging from trees, in fruit baskets, pulped into juice, carried and caressed in characters’ hands. Plucking the fruit of knowledge, Elio has discovered love and it is fitting that it is a peach that embodies his desire. Fat, sweet, and oozing, a peach is ripe with lust—a subversive, queer, alternative apple. Mirroring Oliver’s earlier ravishment of food, Elio gives in to satisfying his appetite.

When Oliver finds Elio asleep later, he kisses his body, tasting the juice from the peach. Oliver is delighted by Elio’s newly discovered desires and goes to take a bite.  Rather than leading to his fall from grace, plucking the Biblical fruit leads to Elio falling deeper and deeper into this love.  

Call Me by Your Name’s scenery is an erotic pastoral landscape that pulses with queer desire. Here, away from civilization and cities, Oliver and Elio are able to pursue their love among the fruit trees. Later, they journey together to mountainous forests and alone they are able to frolic, touch, and shout their joy. Nature is their utopia.

Modern LGBTQ cinema explores this trope of natural settings being where queer love flourishes. In Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015), Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett) pursue their love affair by escaping from the city. They take a road trip together, and in the privacy of their car they can kiss, and touch, and love. Their limbs intertwine in motel room beds, which they pass through anonymously. When they are forced to return to their lives in the city that their relationship is stopped by Carol’s husband. While the city ignites their love, it is also a place of class and socio-economic hierarchies, as well as convention and voyeurism, and is unable to sustain their relationship.

Rather than peaches, Moonlight (directed by Barry Jenkins, 2016), uses the sea as a motif of queer desire. Watching the waves, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and his schoolmate, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), share a kiss before Kevin goes further, reaching down to touch Chiron’s crotch. Under the cover of darkness and alone at the beach, Chiron and Kevin are able to act out their desires. The next day, the boys return to school, and to the roles of masculinity they are expected to play, leading to devastating consequences. In the film’s third act, Chiron, as an adult man, has constructed a mask of performative masculinity as a result of the traumatic ramifications of his only gay encounter. Moonlight ends with a return to the sea and the reunion of Chiron and Kevin. A queer baptism, the sea is full of symbolic change, flux, and rebirth, allowing the characters to move beyond the constraints of themselves. The toxicity of the adult Chiron’s performative masculinity is washed away by the water as the film ends with a flashback shot of Chiron as a child standing beside the ocean.  

Call Me by Your Name is similarly full of water. Before their romance begins, Elio and Oliver visit a lake with Mr. Perlman after locals discover classical statues hidden in its depths. After a falling out, it is by the lake where Elio and Oliver reconcile. They shake hands via a statue’s arm, unable to touch each other without a mediator, fearful of the consequences of physical sensuality.

Elio and Oliver spend much of their time together swimming in rivers and pools. The natural bodies of water allow the interchange of fluid with flirtation as they splash and dive at each other. In an expression of intimacy, Elio takes Oliver to his river, Monet’s berm, where he has taken no one before. On the riverbanks, their desire manifests physically with a kiss, followed by Elio’s bold touch.

Call Me by Your Name is submerged in fluid. Guadagnino emphasizes the physicality of bodies that can eat, vomit, cum, and piss. They are vessels that fill up and empty out, open containers that share themselves around. Desire flows through all the characters. Sexuality isn’t labelled, but instead allowed to manifest naturally. Elio sleeps with a man and a woman, and Oliver has a fiancée back in the States. Mr. Perlman hints at a same-sex relationship in his youth. Guadagnino has created a queer utopia that recalls the masculine sexual openness of Roman antiquity.

iii. my love is not your love; your love is not my love

On the film’s press tour, the stars of Call Me by Your Name have been emphatic that the film is universal, human, timeless, sexless, genderless. “It’s just a love story,” Hammer told The New York Times.

While first love, desire, loneliness, and heartbreak are shared human experiences, Call Me by Your Name is not a universal love story. Attempts by both the film’s marketing campaign and critics to make the film palatable to heterosexual audiences by emphasizing human! love! universal! only does a disservice to the story.

Call Me by Your Name is about two men falling in love. It is a queer story. Despite gay family friends and the liberalism of Elio’s parents, he and Oliver are unable to explore their relationship in the open. Set in 1983, the film’s queer utopia has a limit. Oliver is terrified of corrupting Elio. “We didn’t do anything,” he says, so there’s nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about.

After masturbating with the peach, Elio is ashamed. “I’m sick aren’t I,” he says to Oliver. After being open about their relationship in the mountains, once they return to the city, Elio and Oliver have to make do with stolen looks and kisses in street alleys. When they say goodbye at the station, they can only look on at each other. These are experiences of queerness.

Great films are often hailed as great films because, we are told, they are relatable. When watching a film, if we are reminded of ourselves, the screen transforms into a mirror reflecting ourselves back. When Roger Ebert received his Walk of Fame star, he famously remarked on the power of film:

“Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.”

Ebert’s sentiment is correct: film is a powerful empathy machine; it’s a way of temporarily seeing through another’s eyes or walking in another’s shoes. However, when we talk about empathy in movies, we run the risk of universalizing experiences to the point of reducing complex and specific emotions to a sound bite (“It’s a love story”). Call Me by Your Name’s representation of love is so powerful because it is a representation of queer love. It is forbidden fruit felt out in secret—in small rooms, in moonlight, amongst trees. The film is affecting because we know the relationship cannot last: it is temporal because Oliver has to leave, and tragic because once he leaves the film’s queer Garden of Eden, he cannot return.    

Audiences have been swept away by the film because it is a gay love story, not because it has some generically relatable themes. I am not a queer man but I mourned Elio’s pain and loss with him at the end of the film. I can empathize with his emotions even though I haven’t experienced them. Empathy in film works when there is an acknowledgment of difference in experience—not when we attempt to flatten experience, or “straight-wash” it to make it more palatable for all tastes by turning a peach into an apple.   iv. goodbye at the station

The summer always ends.

Sensing their son’s bond with their guest, Elio’s parents suggest that Elio travel to Bergamo with Oliver before he leaves Italy for good. They spend their last night drunk and dancing, spinning together. Then Oliver hears it: “Love My Way,” by The Psychedelic Furs; his fucking jam. Once again, Elio watches as Oliver bounces and contorts his body, dancing with a stranger on the street. “So swallow all your tears, my love/And put on your new face/You can never win or lose/If you don’t run the race.” The song bookends their relationship, a pop song that now contains every earlier possibility, anxiety, and excitement. It’s a song that even now reminds you of an ex.

Elio and Oliver say goodbye at the station without saying goodbye. Oliver gets on the train, the door shuts, and they gaze at each other until the train moves out. Then Oliver is gone.

When Elio returns to the village everything has lost its color. The summer is over and nature is moving on. The sky is less blue, the trees less green. If he took a bite of a peach it would be watery, losing its sweetness and decaying as autumn creeps in. Oliver has left behind a ghostly presence.

In an attempt to comfort his son, Mr. Perlman gives a speech about empathy:

“We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!”

Elio’s father acknowledges his son’s love; it is valid and it is real. “I don’t envy the pain,” he says, “but I envy you the pain.” It’s a beautiful sentiment. An openness to emotion, to both the ecstasy and the pain, is what Elio gains at the end of the film. His bildungsroman is as much an awakening to his emotional identity as it is to his sexual identity. Guadagnino creates a paradise of queer potential and desire so that he can destroy it. A paradise gained is also a paradise lost. Call Me by Your Name is the full arc.

The film’s coda takes place in the winter. Summer has passed on and the doors are shut to keep out the bitter cold. The family is preparing for Hanukkah when the phone rings. It’s Oliver: he’s getting married.

In the final frame of the film, Elio kneels beside a fire, openly weeping, mourning his summer romance. As he cries, the credits roll and Sufjan Stevens’ “Visions of Gideon” plays. “I have loved you for the last time,” Stevens coos, “I have touched you for the last time.” Guadagnino stays on Chalamet’s face, capturing every emotion that moves across it with the flickering reflections of the flames. It’s the film’s greatest gift, this last moment of empathy the audience is allowed to share with Elio. We are as devastated as he is.

When I saw Call Me by Your Name, the elderly lady sitting beside me in the cinema patted my arm and silently passed me a tissue. I looked around and nearly everyone in the room was shyly wiping their eyes. What a moment of shared empathy. What a gift of a film for the long, dark winter.