Call Me By Your Name, the new film by Luca Guadagnino, is a love story between a seventeen year old boy named Elio, played by Timothée Chalamet, and a 24 year old American graduate named Oliver, played by Armie Hammer, in the summer of 1983 in northern Italy. The film is an adaptation of the novel by André Aciman and has been extremely successful, receiving Oscar Nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor in Leading Role, Music (Original Song) and won Best Adapted Screenplay.
Male identity is a topic of which I wish to explore in this film as I believe that the characters subvert certain gender attributions that we think we must conform to in order to feel accepted by society. This film touches on subjects such as toxic masculinity and emotional vulnerability. These two subjects may help me when it comes to photographing men and trying to get that honest and truthful image through emotion and honesty.
I want to start with Mr. Perlman, who is Elio’s father also played by Michael Stuhlbarg, as I believe he is the most subverted, and also my favourite character, throughout the whole film. Mr. Perlman is an educated and wise man who takes on students for the summer as a form of work experience for their university studies.
Throughout the film, Elio’s father is often feminised through key scenes such as the conversation he has with Elio towards the end of the film. This is a pivotal moment for their relationship as we see Mr. Perlman comfort Elio, and in some cases comfort himself through conversing to Elio about his personal life and reflecting upon it. In this scene Guadagnino has made it unclear if Mr. Perlman is gay and has had previous involvement with another man before he met his wife, Annella. He does this by saying “Maybe more than a friendship. And I envy you.” and also “In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, or pray that their sons land on their feet soon enough,” Mr. Perlman says. “But I am not such a parent. In your place, if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it.” This critical dialogue is wish-fulfilment for many gay people, who could only dream to be accepted and loved by their parents. However, the first quote makes me believe that he had someone in his life, previously, but emotions were not reciprocated revealing a sense of unrequited love between Mr. Perlman and a significant other. By supporting Elio and knowing about his sexuality without shunning him, he is embracing a stereotypical female role in the sense that he’s being the parent that their child addresses first in an emotional crisis. As a gay man, I found it more difficult to tell my dad about my sexuality because he is a masculine father figure, and I know that this is the case for many gay men whether it be stereotypical or not. I believe that Mr. Perlman sees himself as Elio when he was younger as he hints that similar situations have happened to him through his body language and his knowledge. When speaking about love I believe that you need to have first hand experience in order to advise someone, and it’s clear that Mr. Perlman once experienced the same situation as Elio through what he talks about.
There is a scene where Mr. Perlman lets Oliver sit in the front of the car and Elio objects to this as his father never lets Elio sit in the front. There is a sense of confusion from Elio’s side. However, to me, this makes perfect sense. Stereotypically, it is always nerve racking to meet your partners parents as you want to convey a good example of yourself- you want to feel part of the family. By allowing Oliver to sit in the front it shows that Mr. Perlman is trying to build a relationship up with Oliver which should reassure Elio that the professor is treating Oliver as part of the family. This leads onto the idea that Mr. Perlman is accepting Elio and his sexuality by making it obvious to Elio that his relationship with Oliver is positive.
Overall, I feel that Mr.Perlman is a perfect example of a modern father because of how comforting and understanding he is with Elio. Stereotypically, son’s will feel closer with their mothers and mothers will be more emotionally understanding. However, this gender role is subverted and we see more involvement with Mr. Perlman and Elio, emotionally, than Annella.
Moving onto Elio, who is my second favourite character for I feel as If I can relate to him on a personal level, he doesn’t have many friends and keeps to himself throughout most of the film. He explains to Oliver, when asked about what he does in his free time, that he reads books, goes on walks and sometimes goes out at night. This is not what a seventeen year old boy would stereotypically do when thriving in their youth. Elio is much younger than Oliver in the film, which has caused an issue between some people stating that it’s paedophilia. In the 1980’s homosexuality was not accepted in society and it was still illegal to be involved in homosexual relations in some parts of the world. The aids crisis became more hyperbolic and caused scare throughout western culture. Elio had never experienced any form of relationship with someone, especially being a seventeen year old in a small northern Italian town, and so when he met Oliver you could tell that his feelings were genuine for him because of his character development throughout the film. We start by seeing him interested in Oliver, but then he slowly becomes obsessed with him by writing in his diary, which is stereotypically a feminine ideology, smelling his swimming shorts and imagining that he is having sex with Oliver.
His involvement with Marzia is rather platonic in comparison to romantic. I, personally, feel that Marzia is in Elio’s life for the pleasure and not for the commitment which is what makes his and Oliver’s relationship more believable than his and Marzias. Relating this ideology to the theory made by John Berger that men act and women appear makes Marzia seem disposable to Elio. Elio can have Marzia whenever he wants, especially if Oliver doesn’t give him enough satisfaction emotionally and sexually. This reinforces the idea that men have control over women in society and relates to Propp’s ‘Character Types’ theory that women are princess’ waiting for their prince charming. However, to contrast this, there are scenes where Elio acts as the princess because of his vulnerability when it comes to his emotional stability and involvement with Oliver. I also feel that Elio could be experimenting with Marzia and using her as a distraction from Oliver. Oliver has complete control over Elio’s emotions and this shows in scenes such as when Elio confesses his love to Oliver and Oliver says nothing back. Elio’s emotions are tense and we can see this through sporadic outbursts of confessional statements that Oliver is left perplexed with.
Elio’s relationship with his father is the strongest and most stable throughout the duration of the film. He is most affectionate with his father and we can see this through the last converse of dialogue between them both towards the end of the film. He looks up to his father and follows in his footsteps when it comes to studying literature and philosophy.
There is an interesting point that I believe is important to mention, especially where Elio’s character is concerned. I don’t think that Elio has had much of a masculine input from his father growing up which is why I think he looks up to, and admires, Oliver. Oliver is physically taller than Elio and this makes him look up to him, but I’m thinking more metaphorically. In terms of parental guidance, there has been no hyper-masculine man that is involved in Elio’s life until Oliver is introduced, so this is something that Elio hasn’t experienced which could be why he’s so attracted to Oliver.
When reading through Elio’s diary, we can see that he is madly obsessed with Oliver through entries that confess his frustration. For example, he thought he came across too harsh when talking about Bach and later wrote “I thought he didn’t like me”. Elio’s diary entries are hyperbolic in the sense that he thinks too much into situations involving Oliver. Diary entries and over thinking about boys is something that stereotypical teenage girls do in their bedroom. However, this is reversed when we see Elio doing this, but about his homosexual desires with Oliver.
Overall, I believe that Elio’s split into too juxtaposing characters when it comes to his involvement with Oliver and Marzia. Both people expose different sides to Elio’s personality, but which one is the most truthful? Even though he acts differently around Marzia and Oliver, he is still very sexually driven by both of them which I think is important to notice.
The final character that I need to talk about is Oliver, who I believe is the most complex person in Call Me By Your Name, purely because of his arc of transformation and his character development throughout. Oliver is introduced as a well put together man with his hair slick back, tall, handsome and dominant. However, as the story develops we see Oliver start to become less domineering and more vulnerable as he starts to accept his love and passion for Elio. The scene by which I noticed this was when Elio and Oliver are by the pool and Oliver needs to go to town. Elio mimics what Oliver is saying in a sarcastic tone, and Oliver is seen staring into the distance asking Elio questions that are making Oliver nervously wait for a reply. This is when we start to see Elio take control and have the upper hand over Oliver. I don’t believe this is a sign of deterioration, but a sign of worry for what could be pursued because of the laws surrounding homosexuality in the 80’s. As Oliver originates from the United States, the law surrounding homosexuality is still quite strict which causes Oliver to think deeply into his and Elio’s relationship. There is a scene where Oliver looks around to see if anyone is watching him and Elio before he gets close to his face and confesses how much he wants to kiss him- until he slowly resigns from the idea because of heterosexual expectations. I also believe that them only spending six weeks together also has a strong impact on his decisions when pursuing a relationship with Elio. He will eventually have to go back to the United States to study, which he does, and Elio will be left in Italy to drown in his sorrows that were left behind by his first love. Could this be a sign of compassion towards Elio by saying no more to their relationship so that the suffering isn’t as bad when Oliver has to leave?
Later on in the book (this scene is not mentioned in the film) Oliver goes on to marry a woman and has children. This could be a sign that Oliver has withdrawn and maybe feels ashamed by his previous love affair with Elio. It relates to the idea that Marzia was disposable to Elio and now Elio knows how it feels to be disposed by someone important to him. It also represents Oliver always having complete control over his and Elio’s relationship throughout that summer as he has progressed in his life without Elio.
I don’t believe that it was Oliver that made Elio suffer, but it was the nature of him that should be held responsible. Because Oliver was the first masculine figure Elio had in his life I think this was a huge attraction and had an impact on Elio’s emotional well being.
Overall, the characters in ‘Call Me By Your Name’ all experience the emotional impact that love can have on one self, whether it be between father and son, or between two lovers. Each characters emotional development throughout the film, including Mr. Perlman because of his honesty at the end, is extremely complex in the sense that men struggle with their emotions and being able to express how they feel. The beginning of the love story starts as a mystery and isn’t discovered until the end, by which it’s too late to pursue. This links to the song, that was originally made for the film and nominated for an Oscar, ‘Mystery of Love’ by Sufjan Stevens. These characters emotions are significant for the story to develop. Without their emotional states being what had developed then the relationships between these men would not have been possible and a foundation for the book. Call Me By Your Name is an important film that needs to be recognised as it doesn’t dwell on the sorrows of aids and disease, or family feuds, but love and the emotional connection between two people.