Updated: Aug 27, 2018
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.
Following a conversation with Uriel, who seemed deeply plagued by the fact that Oliver and Elio so fatalistically equated the end of the summer with the end of their relationship; and probably even more disturbed by the audience who equally took this turn of events for granted, I couldn’t get over the fact that I just was not as bothered by it as he was. The more I thought about it, it only strengthened my gut-feeling that any other ending - or continuation for that matter - would not feel accurate. Granted, as I have been through the same end-of-summer-train-station-goodbye myself, at around Elio’s age too, surely I would not have wanted to reach a different conclusion, almost two decades later…
And here's to dreamy summer loves...
Then, it suddenly hit me. We were thinking of it in terms of a real-life love story, while this might not even be a movie love story. Instead, I’d define it as Guadagnino’s celebration of aesthetics, paired with an ambitious attempt to capture and depict the essence of love – I’ll dive into these concepts shortly.
But firstly, if that were the case, then Guadagnino was perfectly right to subliminally place us in this self-evidence of a summer-love, with all its confines. It revives our personal childhood memories: summer holiday freedom, countryside smells, heart palpitations, summer love, and yes - the inevitable heartbreak that goes with it.
By playing on these chords, Guadagnino has us fully immersed in the experience he wanted to produce, from the very first minutes. We’re exempt from our typical role as “spectators in anticipation,” as we know exactly where this is going. We are now freely disposed to appreciate and absorb the art of his movie, namely the precision with which we see Oliver and Elio’s love unfold, against the backdrop of the beautifully filmed Italian scenery.
For us to vicariously experience their blissful encounter, Guadagnino could not allow this relationship to continue. Long-term relationships are just not that cinematographic… For ‘continuation’ implies routine, romance gradually replaced by sober notions, such as safety and security: not very adventurous; the intimacy of knowing each other deeply: hardly surprising; the downs that long-term commitment pledges to withstand: not the light-heartedness of a furtive summer love.
The beauty inherent to long-lasting and committed love will not transcribe itself into the décor of a summer vacation in Italy. It would be much better portrayed in the much less aesthetic scenes of day to day life. In fact, Elio’s parents’ relationship – which seems harmonious enough to merit some limelight – melts into the background.
In fact, are there any movies celebrating ‘plain’ long-term love? And that is without the crutches of love-triangles, terminal disease (of course that calls for Michael Haneke’s Amour), or the movie comfortably ending at the wedding of two meant-to-be-souls who went against the odds… Not even Before Sunrise and Before Sunset took that turn. Even worse, the third movie of the trilogy: Before Midnight - where they have actually become a ‘real’ couple, he begins to question his life decisions, and his relationship with Celine is at risk.
So, how does Guadagnino go about (re-)creating the essence of love, heightened by the surrounding aesthetics?
He allows us to witness the protagonists’ Hingabe.
A somewhat untranslatable German word, expressing complete devotion by self-surrender, often attributed to a woman’s sexuality. It is a blend of commitment, effort, zeal and passion; it results from one’s ability to both, genuinely open up and accepting to receive. (Wikipedia).
Edith Stein, a German philosopher, apprentice of Edmund Husserl, wrote about Hingabe in Love:
The uncompromising entrusting of oneself to their beloved other … made possible by restless trust … [The capability to] fully empathize with the other, so deeply that it feels like stepping into their soul. Thus, in a relationship between two persons, Love and Knowledge stand ever-more closely together. (Stein, Edith, Was Ist Der Mensch? p. 31)
Hingabe is one of the most powerful expressions of love, both physically and mentally. Oliver and Elio: two men who do not consider themselves as gay, magnetically drawn to each other, with a limited amount of time to overcome inner demons, seduce each other, experience the explosion of love, and confront the inevitable heartbreak – a perfect framework for Hingabe.
Yet, Guadagnino subtly circumvents the theme of homosexuality throughout the movie. This strengthens my belief that this is not about the love-story, or love-unfulfilled story; rather, about the ‘dissection’ of seduction, growing proximity, intricate ambiguity, sexual tension, and surrender – drawing a portrait of “falling in love,” cutting it down to its most elementals fibers.
In this portrait, CMBYN evokes universal and yet very private memories we all carry in us: unable to fall asleep at night; relentlessly checking the watch, anxious to meet the other person; the deep breath taken before expressing one’s love for the other person; tearing and gazing, incapacitated by our broken heart. We’ve all been there. These memories run so deeply within us, that we either feel like we’re right there together with them in Lombardy, or privately relive our own summer love… Guadagnino’s artistic stroke was to identify the most accurate moments in the life cycle of falling in love, and rendering them just as accurately through the lens of the camera.
As I’m trying to distinguish between the plot (Oliver and Elio falling in love) and the scene-setting (summer vacation in Italy), I wonder, which one was given more preponderance? I try to imagine copy/pasting Elio and Oliver and their dialogues into a mundane grey and rainy city, would that work? Would that have the same effect on us; and on them – would they have fallen in love in that context?
The setting clearly plays an active role in this movie: the bucolic house, copious meals in the garden, the pool (clearly the place for Oliver to edit his paper and ask for Elio’s opinion), the bike-rides in the countryside and the spontaneous dipping in the river symbolizing freedom, the seductive melody of the Italian language... All this in an overarching ambiance of dolce far niente… elegantly amplified by the soundtrack, which is by far not less important in creating the atmospherics.
As a spectator, I can hardly figure out whether I was swept away by the characters, or by that dreamy ensemble: holidays, Italy, youth… A space filled with aesthetic beauty, playing with all my senses. It seems clear to me that Guadagnino treated the décor just as another actor on the set.
Dream-like scene-setting, memories of times long gone, the unfolding of love and its painful end – I can see how Uriel associated this with Zeus, and our human condition of “always looking for this other half (…) When one of them meets with this other half (…) one will not be out of the other’s sight,” hence the question “why would soulmates just give it all up?” But as the continuation of the quote indicates:
“the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love”
Emphasis put on desire and pursuit. Love, or is it real life, isn’t culminating in finding that whole and “living happily ever after,” it lies in the eternal pursuit.
So, are we destined to yearn eternally? Just the way we yearn for becoming a whole through love, we yearn for our idealized childhood.
Call it nostalgia or melancholy – many of us will spend their entire adulthood yearning for the sense of freedom of summer holidays, feeling carefree-whether that was true or not at the time… Isn’t yearning inherently wishing for the realization of our illusion?
In the penultimate scene, when Oliver calls Elio to announce that he is getting married, Elio calls him by his name: “Elio Elio Elio.” Oliver responds the same way: “Oliver,” and adds with a burdened voice: “I remember everything.”
How intact would those memories have remained, had they stayed together over the years? Like in every relationship, they would have had their arguments, their set patterns, etc. Not to say they wouldn’t love each other. But the memory of the perfection would have been affected. Perhaps sometimes we prefer the yearning, for it preserves the illusion that oneness can exist; making it immune to the harsh reality of our incomplete, irredeemable aloneness.
I think that Guadagnino would confirm that “pure peach moments” do exist, but that they require extraordinary circumstances. Therefore Oliver had to go on the train, while Elio had to stay behind. The father’s speech, Oliver’s claim that he remembers everything years later, and Elio’s indefinite gaze into the flames, lead me to believe that their souls will eternally be bound together, not by their memories, but by the shared experience of being each other’s complementary halves, left intact to be yearned for, as per Zeus’ dictum. My question is whether that is a consolation or an ordeal?