Guadagnino’s Ivory Tower: Setting, Intellectualism, and Desire in Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name could have easily drowned in its own pretension.

Italy. Lombardy. Summer. The 1980s. Bright bathing suits and plenty of Italian Europop. Luca Guadagnino’s film takes up residence in an idle northern Italian 17th-century villa and tells the story of Elio Perlman, a precocious seventeen-year-old who spends his days transposing music, reading, and hanging out with other young summer residents. His primary responsibilities include partaking in the social engagements that his highly-educated parents ask him to attend and occasionally entertaining guests with his killer piano abilities. The family employs a cook and maid, Mafalda, and a groundskeeper, Anchise. Oliver, “the usurper,” enters their isolated, ethereal world. He is a 24-year-old graduate student spending the summer as Mr. Perlman’s live-in assistant. Together, Oliver and Elio read endlessly, engage in hyperintellectual banter near various bodies of water (they dredge up an ancient statue from one of them), and eat plenty of fresh fruit. They lead lives of leisure far-removed from the vast majority of modern audiences.

The scholarly, luxurious world of the Perlman’s villa almost guarantees Guadagnino’s inability to engage with the intersection of race, class, gender-identity, and non-normative sexual identity (with the notable exception of Elio and Oliver’s shared Jewish identity). There are certainly grounds for arguing that the queer love story illustrated in Call Me by Your Name only provides representation for the upper echelons of society and should therefore not be viewed as the coming-of-age queer story of our time. There is also an argument to be made that, because the film is more palatable for easily-shaken audiences—those who may write off a film that challenges them on more than one front (in the way that Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight engages with race, class, and notions of masculinity)—Elio and Oliver’s story more effectively sways these viewers’ understandings of queer relationships. These are questions that must be asked of queer cinema, but we are not asking those today.

Instead, we ask how Guadagnino’s erudite protagonists and ethereal setting contribute to the central thrust of the film—Elio’s process of acknowledging his own desires, articulating them to another person, and having those desires be fulfilled. The political rumblings beneath the surface of “somewhere in northern Italy” become more and more apparent throughout the film and mirror Elio’s internal conflict in understanding his sexuality. Furthermore, Elio’s verbal limitations during his interactions with Oliver challenge the notion that Elio is the incredible linguist that the film sets him up to be. These tensions in setting and language heighten viewers’ understanding of Elio’s sexual awakening.

“Somewhere in northern Italy,” 1983.

There seems to be no better place for Elio to learn about his sexuality than Italy, which has always occupied a liminal identity. Former center of the Roman Empire but a country struggling with its Constitution and party strife in the 1980s in its first forty years as a nation after WWII. Seat of the Vatican and Catholicism, yet also known for its beauty, sultry romance, and passion – the same passion that constitutionally let honor killings off easy until the early 1980s. Until 1981, if someone killed their spouse and their lover caught in the act of an affair, jurisdiction could be more lenient because of a perceived sense of honor that needed to be upheld.

Similarly, though Italy may feel open and free as Oliver and Elio dance and kiss in the streets of Bergamo near the end of the film, the next day they share a hug at the train station, unable to kiss in public. Italy lags behind Europe in terms of gay rights, and acts of homophobic and transphobic hate crime remain common. Italy is ripe with contradictions and dualities, providing Elio with a space in which to explore his sexual identity beyond a binary understanding of love: he finds pleasure with both Oliver and Marzia and allows himself to explore both relationships.

Throughout the film, Italians on TV and at the table discuss Bettino Craxi and the Historic Compromise, an important shift in government coalitions in the 1970s between the Christian Democracy and Italian Communist Party, a shift that people disagree about and fight over its importance years after it occurred. A shift spearheaded by Aldo Moro, leader of the Christian Democracy, that led to his kidnapping and murder in May 1978. The 80s brought the pentapartito—a coalition of five parties—the beginnings of the EU, and important focus to economic development. Individualism called for more free-market and less state, and Italy became an important economic player on the world stage.

And yet, Italians in town don’t have anywhere to be: they drive tractors and do manual labor, drink coffee, and go out with no sense of urgency or needing to accomplish anything in particular. Everybody just exists. Instead of being the movers and shakers, Italians around Elio think and debate. The 80s were a time of change in Italy, yet the background of Elio’s summer is stagnant, in suspension with its lazy bike rides and quiet mornings in the town square. Change may have been happening a short trip away in Milan, but in the countryside people luxuriate in the thick of summer.

When Elio and Oliver visit a woman’s house for a glass of water, a framed poster of Mussolini hangs above the threshold. The classics surround everyone as well, dredged up from Lake Garda, observed in slides in Elio’s father’s study, in conversations between Elio and Oliver. In inhabiting Italy, people occupy an identity influenced by the glory, honor, and disgrace of the nation’s history. Italians operate within the gray areas, accepting blurry definitions of state, self, and identity. That people inhabit a space of political in-between underscores Elio’s process of asking himself what his feelings towards Oliver are as they begin to surface. If Elio sees people dwelling in liminality in other arenas, why not allow himself to think about his own definition of sexuality as well? His own sexual awakening—exploring love with Oliver, Marzia (and the oft-cited peach) simultaneously—comes to mirror Italy’s own nuanced understanding of self.

The tensions arising from setting become even more personal as the film progresses. As Elio and Oliver become closer, the realities of summer ending become even more apparent. Perhaps the most devastating disruption to the ethereal setting is the eventuality of Oliver’s departure.

“Is it better to speak or to die?”

Spoiler alert: Elio (thankfully) does not die. He does speak, though. As he and Oliver encircle the World War I monument for the Battle of Piave, Elio circuitously professes his interest in Oliver. Until the statue scene, like the knight who debates professing his love for the princess, Elio is unable to express his feelings for Oliver. That Elio is fluent in so many languages renders his own speechlessness with Oliver more poignant. His intricate knowledge of the external (history, literature, music, art, language, etc.) has not quite aligned with an understanding of his internal state. Part of the journey of Call Me by Your Name is witnessing Elio transpose his external knowledge—the stuff that he is familiar with—into a language of love that acknowledges the internal rumblings he feels as soon as the usurper, Oliver, enters his world.

Elio uses music, history, art, and literature, as jumping-off points to express his interest in Oliver. Because he is more familiar with the language of intellectualism, engaging in intellectual discourse with Oliver seems most natural. Furthermore, it allows Elio to minimize the vulnerability that comes with directly discussing his feelings with Oliver. Early in the film, when Oliver asks Elio to play a song on the guitar, Elio is emboldened to hike up his jean shorts and tell Oliver to follow him. He proceeds to play the same song in a range of styles: young Bach’s version, Liszt’s alteration of Bach’s version, Busoni’s alteration of Liszt’s version. Elio’s performance is an attempt to impress Oliver, which it seems to do. The scene ends with Oliver folding himself into the couch, in awe of the young musician. The piano scene is one of Elio’s first attempts to grab Oliver’s attention through a familiar medium—music. Although Elio grabs Oliver’s attention, he hasn’t yet clarified his interest in Oliver (to himself or to Oliver). The chaotic range of emotions, which the various versions of the song convey, reflects Elio’s confusion with his own identity. Does Elio feel more of the jolting Busoni version of the song toward Oliver? Or perhaps the mellower Bach version. The scene is indicative of Elio’s ability to replicate the external but inability to listen to himself and share his own version of Bach’s melody with Oliver.

Source: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5726616/

Before he communicates his desire to Oliver, Elio must acknowledge that those desires exist within himself. Guadagnino expertly tracks Elio’s slow recognition (made possible by Timothée Chalamet’s commanding performance) in the film’s iconic dance scene. Elio watches Oliver kiss Chiara as they dance.  He overhears his friends’ typical teenage reactions to a dance floor make out; the conversation is almost comically adolescent in the way it unfolds. One of the boys says that he wants to be in Oliver’s shoes. Another boy cheers on his efforts. Elio tries his best to not engage in the conversation. One of the women says, “Who wouldn’t want to be in her shoes?” An example of James Ivory’s masterful writing, the question maintains the conversation’s heteronormativity while allowing Elio to have his own, quiet answer to that question through Guadagnino’s visual storytelling. Midway through the question, Guadagnino cuts to a medium shot of Elio, who very much wants to be in Chiara’s shoes. As Elio shifts his eyes and smokes his cigarette, he continues watching Oliver on the dance floor. Elio leans into the camera, which creates an intimate close-up. His confusion, let-down, and realization of his feelings for Oliver have never been clearer. As he shifts in his seat, the camera fails to maintain focus, reflective of Elio’s internal chaos—his biting realization that his admiration for Oliver is not quite normal.

It takes a nudge from parents to push him to speak. The Perlman family curls up on the couch on one of the few rainy days in the film to read a 16th century French romance novel (that is written in German but translated into English, courtesy of Elio’s mother) about a knight who fails to profess his love to a princess. Elio, in one of his more vulnerable moments in the film, tells his parents “I’ll never have the courage to ask a question like that” to which his father supportively responds, “I doubt that.” His parents introduce a particularly relevant novel to their son. They perceive that something is going on with him – whether they know that it specifically has to do with Elio’s feelings toward Oliver is unclear. Either way, his parents exhibit an understanding of Elio’s need to intellectualize his own feelings in order to enter into them; they create a new language, one that merges a shared language of intellectualism with musings on unspoken love. The story becomes an entry point for Elio to understand that it may, in fact, be better to speak, and his parents’ support gives him the courage to consider doing that.

Source: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5726616/

Seemingly inspired by story time with his parents, Elio makes tentative moves to share his feelings with Oliver when he brings up the French love story with Oliver as they lounge by the pool. The princess and knight’s story becomes an allegory for whether Elio will tell Oliver of his interest in him beyond friendship. Elio sits yards away from Oliver, who is perched on the pool ledge with his back facing Elio. The camera starts from Elio’s point of view to remind viewers of his limited ability to read Oliver’s reactions during the conversation. In a conversation already ridden in subtext, Guadagnino’s blocking of the characters heightens the sense that neither character has a clear understanding of where the other is coming from. Guadagnino cuts to a close-up of Oliver during the conversation. In a film with very few close-ups, this one stands out. The framing mirrors the close-up of Elio during the dance scene (in the dance scene, Elio occupies the left side of the frame and in the pool scene, Oliver occupies the right). In both instances, the shallow depth of field ensures all eyes are on the subject and his processing of the scene. In the same way we begin to understand Elio’s attraction to Oliver in the dance scene, the close-up of Oliver at the pool is the first clear evidence that he seems deeply affected by what Elio has to say. In other words, Oliver seems in on the subtext, and viewers begin to understand that more clearly, even though Elio’s positioning makes it so that he can’t be as certain.

When Elio reveals that the knight “fudges” telling the princess about his love for her, Oliver jokingly says, “Figures, he’s French.” The subtext continues—Elio is (part) French. Does Oliver think that because of that, Elio lacks confidence to share his feelings? Within that single joke, there are layers and layers of complexity removed from an actual discussion of their feelings for one another: they are talking about fictional characters (and not themselves); Elio himself is ambiguously French; and to top it off, the idea is delivered in a joke, which is inherently difficult to understand as either serious or lighthearted. The limitations of allegorical conversations are clear: when speaking in allegory, Elio cannot be sure whether Oliver is on the exact same page as him.

Simultaneously, their pool conversation highlights the benefits of speaking allegorically. Communicating through the lens of a fictional story allows Elio to not be as vulnerable with Oliver, which provides a layer of protection in case the feelings are not mutual. Furthermore, if the opposite is true and Oliver seems to engage with Elio on the subtext, then Elio has permission to be more honest about his feelings. From Elio’s point of view during the pool scene, Oliver’s level of engagement lies somewhere in between, as it often does with subtext. Whether Oliver is engaging in the subtext or not, the main sentiment that Elio can derive from Oliver’s response to the story is that Oliver would prefer speaking over fudging. Oliver, an American, mocks the French for not having the confidence to share their feelings. Elio gleans a bit of knowledge about Oliver in a conversation that is seemingly purely academic. As a result, he is better able to gauge how Oliver may respond to a more explicit discussion of his interest, although there is certainly still a chance that Oliver made his remark about the knight without Elio in mind.

The boys bike to Piave. Elio moves into the realm of the more explicit as they explore the town. Although the language Elio uses to explain his desire is still quite enigmatic, it is in this scene that Oliver understands. As in previous scenes, Elio’s entry into the conversation as they encircle the fountain is made possible by a discussion of his academic knowledge: Elio clarifies the history of Piave’s World War I monument. When Oliver rhetorically asks, “Is there anything you don’t know?” Elio says, “If you only knew how little I know about the things that matter.” When Oliver asks him to clarify, Elio slyly responds, “You know what things.” Oliver, who is walking on the far side of the fountain, physically crosses through Elio, who is in the foreground of the shot. Guadagnino indicates a shift in their understanding of one another. Instead of operating in a world of subtext and ambiguity, their relationship has entered into the realm of honesty and openness. They meet at the other side of the fountain, a physical unification that symbolizes their unification of understanding.

“Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.”

After they unite in their understanding of one another in Piave, Elio and Oliver create a new language to express their desires—one of openness, self-discovery, and dancing. The film’s titular scene may bewilder viewers, but it is tailor-made for Elio and Oliver to be intimate with each other. Together, they experience the chaotic excitement of a new relationship, all the while knowing that the end of summer looms.

Call Me by Your Name is wrapped up in heady discourse—“Somewhere in Northern Italy” could just as easily be “Inside the Ivory Tower.” Yet the Italian backdrop asks us to uproot our understanding of place, to dwell in contradictions and duality, to give ourselves over to Elio’s processing of himself in a liminal space. In understanding how the languages, the novels, the World War I statues that populate Elio’s summer actually embody tools he needs to become familiar with his own desire, we learn that their purpose is not to rarefy his world and mystify us. They exist to empower Elio, a seventeen-year-old who has to figure out how to navigate a world that doesn’t allow him to easily understand homosexual desire. In the end, Elio’s erudite understanding of the world challenges us to engage, to learn how to understand this depiction of queer desire, and to learn to welcome other stories of queer romance onto the screen.

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Source of photo at top of page: https://www.nme.com/blogs/call-me-by-your-name-sequel-release-date-trailer-cast-news-2255772

Michael Colbert and Natalie LaPlant
Michael Colbert on Twitter
Michael Colbert
Michael is a Portland, Maine-based writer. He loves horror film (his favorites are Candyman and Rosemary's Baby) and coffee (his favorites are Ethiopian and Costa Rican). His writing has appeared in such magazines as Avidly, Maine the Way, and Film Inquiry.
Natalie LaPlant on Twitter
Natalie LaPlant
Natalie loves a good cup of coffee and a good cat. She sees every movie that comes to theaters — sometimes three in one day! Natalie is an active citizen and will talk at length about local and national politics. She will probably cite one of the 20+ podcasts she listens to. Natalie took film studies courses while studying at Bowdoin College, completed a film production program in Prague, and has worked in NYC and Chicago.

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