Updated: Aug 27, 2018
One of the first questions that came to my mind while watching Call Me by Your Name was - why choosing this title, and more importantly, what does it mean? What had Oliver in mind, suggesting to Elio “Call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine”? Uriel, you suggested a “two in one” interpretation, to which I can relate to. But still, my mind is not at ease. I still wonder why wanting to crystallize love, and maybe limit it, with a pact of that kind? Why choosing this one’s-own-name use, instead of something else? If, as Luca Guadagnino recalled, “The other person makes you beautiful – enlightens you, elevates you,” why wanting to turn him into your own self, instead of preserving his own characteristics?
Those questions led me to put into question the very nature of Oliver and Elio’s relationship. Is it really love? If so, what makes us think it is? Is it the interminable complicit glances they throw at each other, or their countless escapes, together and alone, in the confines of North Italy?
After all, they’ve never said to each other “I love you”. And it’s true: maybe you don’t need words to express it is love. And maybe, technically, the producer didn’t want to emphasize their obvious love, risking hurting its meaning. Yet, he did choose to emphasize the use of the respective names calling, for instance, when Elio’s father invokes Montaigne’s feeling of his friendship with La Boétie:
“Parce que c’était lui; Parce que c’était moi” (Because it was he; Because it was I).
Can we better claim by this sentence the absolute singularity which Montaigne addressed to this relation, only referring to, and only needing, this friendship? If for Montaigne, as suggested Merleau-Ponty, “To exist is to exist under the gaze of his friend,” I doubt that this idea is (and can be) an expression of love.
And so, having my doubts on love, I turned to think about another feature of Oliver and Elio’s relationship: their sense of sharing – experiences, thoughts, passions and desires. And it brought me to think of Aristotle’s famous views on friendship, selfhood, identity. To him, the friend is an “other self”, helping in self-discovery, and, ultimately, in self-love:
“It is a help to those in their prime in performing noble actions, for ‘two going together’ are better able to think and to act” (Aristotle).
In arguing so, Aristotle distinguishes between three different kinds of friendship: that of utility, friendship of pleasure, and virtuous friendship. Which one, then, corresponds to Elio and Oliver’s? While the two first cannot be considered as real friendships (the first one being shallow and easily dissolved, because of its very nature of being necessarily beneficial and advantageous for both sides; the second for being built on passions and pleasures only), the true friendship is the one of virtue. The latter is based on a person wishing the best for his friend, regardless of utility, or pleasure. And it is long lasting, but tough to obtain, because this type of people doesn’t come by often and it takes a lot to have a complete virtuous friendship – the kind Elio’s father mentioned to him in the famous father-and-son scene.
And yet, another doubt caught me: while self-love of utility and self-love of pleasure become, in Aristotle’s view, selfishness, friendship and self-loving are one of the virtues of a good life. Can it be told that Elio and Oliver have achieved self-love, together? That their relationship, might it be of love or friendship, has elevated them to loving themselves, as true friendship should do? I am not sure. Oliver appears to us confident, even pretentious at times, knowing his worth. Elio, instead, seems frail, insecure. He even explicitly sees himself as inferior, or not (good) enough for Oliver:
“Mr. Perlman: You two had a nice friendship.
Mr. Perlman: You're too smart not to know how rare, how special what you two had was.
Elio: Oliver was Oliver.
Mr. Perlman: Parce-que c'était lui, parce-que c'était moi.
Elio: Oliver may be very intelligent but...
Mr. Perlman: Oh no, no, no. He was more than intelligent. What you two had, had everything and nothing to do with intelligence. He was good. You were both lucky to have found each other, because you too are good.
Elio: I think he was better than me. I think he was better than me.
Mr. Perlman: I'm sure he'd say the same thing about you. Which flatters you both.”
Aristotle’s positions on friendship take a step further, as they echo the story from Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron which Elio’s mother, Annella, read and translated, an evening:
[Reading from The Heptaméron] - Annella Perlman: “A handsome young knight is madly in love with a princess, and she too is in love with him, though she seems not to be entirely aware of it. Despite the friendship that blossoms between them, or perhaps because of that very friendship, the young knight finds himself so humbled and speechless that he is totally unable to bring up the subject of his love. Until one day he asks the princess point-blank: Is it better to speak or to die?
A question to which Elio will answer: “I'll never have the courage to ask a question like that.” Is it because he identifies with the experience of the young knight, obsessed about the fruit of his desire? At least, this might be the expression of the ambiguous “Freundschaft”, the German translation for “friendship,” but which implicitly implies more than that.
Thus, while love between Oliver and Elio is put into question, as their ability to elevate one another is too, the existence of a deep sense of mutual understanding and tenderness is undeniable. Elio and Oliver even seem to share it all (though pretty passively…): their likes, dislikes, interests, passions, their common love for art and aesthetics, expressed in music, listened, written and played, as well as in paintings, sculpture and contemplation. And yet, it is obvious that Oliver and Elio are not the same person. They are even essentially pretty much different. Yet, by accepting being called by Oliver’s name, Elio seems to fill a bit more his obsession towards Oliver: getting as close as possible of becoming a part of him. And Elio is insatiable – from smelling Oliver’s bathing suits, to sneaking into his room, sleeping in his bed, and wanting to wear his skin. And yet, it isn’t Elio who initiates the calling by each other’s names, but Oliver.
Was it another of Oliver’s games? It might be. But does it necessarily take away the meaningfulness of their friendship? I’m not sure.
It might have been the very feeling of living to the edge, the understanding that everything is possible because limited in time, that might have given meaning to their story, echoing Elio’s father counsel that “pain is not to be avoided.” An advice that Elio applied, even before their famous discussion, when he and Oliver choose to embrace the limit of time, living it to its full, understanding and accepting its end. Maybe it is the acknowledgment that their story has an end determined ahead, that allowed them to enjoy it, to live it, to experience it, instead of renouncing to it.
Here again, time and pain stand at the heart of humans’ experiences. Are they the key to the mystery, the absurdity, of love and friendship? For now, what is certain, is that, as real friends, there’s nothing left but wishing the best to each other. And in doing so, “one must imagine Elio happy.”