The universe of Call Me by Your Name is remarkably separate from external context. The story occurs in a dreamy, unperturbed bubble. Watching the film, I found myself seeking hints by which to situate the story in a larger world.
This post is part of Sapienism's online symposium dedicated to Luca Guadagnino's 2017 film, Call Me by Your Name. Each of the four participants watched the movie separately, and the following posts represent different yet complementary perspectives on the film.
The universe of Call Me by Your Name is remarkably separate from external context. The story occurs in a dreamy, unperturbed bubble. Watching the film, I found myself seeking hints by which to situate the story in a larger world. 1983 is an ambiguous year. Was AIDS, for example, already in the characters’ consciousness? Or what about the local context of Crema and its environs? Elio mentions that his family is the only Jewish one in town. What of underlying political, religious, or social dynamics with the neighbors or, more personally, the housekeeper and gardener? What might they think of Elio and Oliver?
As for politics, we catch only brief glimpses. Campaign posters for the Communists and Socialists hang in the town square, while a fiery political debate (in Italian) takes place over lunch with grandparents. But these party politics have no real import in this summery paradise, and Elio and Oliver leave the table, dazed and disinterested. When they stop for water at a local farmhouse, Oliver points to the portrait of Mussolini – Il Duce – hanging over the old woman serenely shelling her peas. “That’s Italy,” replies Elio, a bit enigmatically.
We also learn very little about personal histories. Oliver is from New England, and hints that his family is more religiously and socially conservative than the Perlmans. He is a stranger to the family. “You’re taller than I thought!” exclaims Professor Perlman when Oliver emerges from the car. On first viewing, I assumed Oliver was already a grad-student favorite, invited to Italy as a leisurely reward for academic success, but he is a stranger from the start. And the Perlmans, too; I want to know more about this fascinating family. How is it that Elio speaks three languages fluently? Where does he feel more at home – America? Italy? France? It’s briefly mentioned that his mother inherited the villa – what is her story? Aciman’s original novel undoubtedly provides some answers. But having only seen the film, I’m left disoriented and full of curiosity about the political and personal backgrounds of the place and the people.
This contextual obscurity heightens the film’s dreamlike atmosphere, in which events are separated from reality. The scenery, locations, color palette, and overall aesthetic of the film add to this feeling. Like a dream, events outside the movie’s context are so hazy as to be insignificant, creating the impression that anything is possible, that to speak of any larger repercussions would be almost nonsensical. The whole setting is a bubble, paradoxically allowing Elio and Oliver great freedom, while the lack of context also somewhat alienates them from each other. They create a romance in this unique and beautiful world, but the pervading sentiment is that it’s not ‘real life.’ How well can they ever really know each other when their story plays out in this dreamlike semi-reality? Oliver’s final telephone call is a missile from this unknown beyond, but Elio remains behind in (snowy) paradise. Elio too will eventually pop the bubble. The memory of what is possible will then allow him to find greater meaning with a new person, a whole person, amid the attendant messy context and consequences absent from the hermeneutically sealed world of those six weeks of Italian summer.