“A story, as Borges has shown, can be a series of clues but not a solution, an enfolding of a mystery instead of a revelation. It can contain the images without the attached discursive morality.” -Charles Baxter
Overall, the film Call Me by Your Name has received immense praise. The film portrays a summer romance between a seventeen year old boy and a twenty-four year old graduate student studying under the boy’s father. It has been considered an “erotic triumph” and one of the best movies of the year.
But it has also been criticized. Critics have largely been religious conservatives characterizing the relationship as pedophilic or (more accurately) paederastic, though they are joined by at least one prominent secular reviewer who has concerns about power and manipulation related to age difference. I won’t here take up these age issues, other than to say that they exist and should be considered carefully. But I would like to point out one mistake made by critics. What many critics fail to grasp is that the film does not unilaterally praise the relationship, even if it depicts many beautiful and tender moments. Even cautionary tales can have moments of beauty. Like real-life young love, the film’s central relationship exists in tensions, and results in pain and the loss of bliss.
The film opens with young Elio cleaning his room. As happens every year, a graduate student will be joining Elio’s family in a small Italian town for the summer, and Elio will be giving the visitor his room. The student, Oliver, arrives as a charming and playful man, who contrasts starkly with the precocious and self-assured Elio. Elio is an accomplished musician and avid reader. He has strong views on relationships, social dynamics, and sexuality, which can be seen when he criticizes Oliver’s laxity in leaving the dinner table and when he mocks a gay couple that visits his family.
But even with all his self-confidence, Elio is still young, and his surroundings match his youth. Elio’s world revolves in lush scenery, tableclothed meals in the summer sun, and a tranquil leisure of reading and running around with friends. When the movie opens, Elio’s still a virgin (and his virginity is mirrored in his surroundings), and he flippantly and wistfully talks about wanting to sleep with an Italian girl. The movie depicts him with a youthful sexuality, careless and full of ease. But tension arises when he feels frustrated by the attention that the mature and masculine Oliver gets from others. Nonetheless, Elio and Oliver bond as the film progresses.
The relationship between the two shifts suddenly one afternoon as they lie alone in the grass. Elio tries to come on to Oliver, but Oliver rebuffs him by saying, more or less, that the relationship would be unwise. Elio, in a characteristic bout of youthful self-confidence, then gropes Oliver, and the two finally kiss in the grass. Here, Elio exerts power in a situation that he believes he can control. This is a characteristic move by the young when it comes to sex and sexuality: to move forward with abandon in pursuing your desires, even when those older and more experienced advise you to proceed with caution.
Over time, Elio’s self-assurance begins to unravel, and the destruction of his easy confidence falls apart entirely in the infamous peach scene, where Elio masturbates into a peach which Oliver later discovers. When Oliver picks up the peach, Elio wants him to put it down. The scene disturbs the viewer while Oliver smiles and fingers the peach, and Elio begs for him to stop, saying at one point, “You’re hurting me.” Those words hit the viewer with cinematic shame, fear, and insecurity, and all of the confidence Elio projected in the grass completely disappears. Elio has completely lost control.
What this scene reveals is that Elio has recklessly entered into a territory which, for all of his intelligence and personal achievement, he does not truly understand. He has run recklessly onto the terrain, not just of sexuality generally, but of his own sexuality. This recklessness has been his undoing, and all of his former intelligence and control cannot save him now. Oliver simply confronts Elio with his own actions, asking with a smile, “What have you done?” But Elio cannot take it. Like all young men entering their sexual lives, Elio would like to escape the simple facts of his history, and evade himself. But Oliver, perhaps cruelly, will not permit this, as he digs his fingers into the peach. In this way, he touches upon Elio’s very delusions of control when it comes to his sexuality.
One important lesson from the film is that you are not free to use your sexuality as you wish. Or, at least, you cannot escape the unintended consequences of erotic pursuits. Nor can you control them. And once you have set upon this terrain recklessly, a new, dark pain will come upon you.
I think this is why the movie ends in winter. Near the end of the film, Elio takes a phone call from Oliver when he returns home. While the movie began in summer with Elio’s skin exposed in the Italian heat, it now ends with Elio covered over by winter clothing. Elio loses his youth, and he comes upon winter. He’s been heartbroken by Oliver’s departure and engagement to a woman. This is why the movie ends with his tears by a fire. Because something has come alive in Elio, but something has also died. Life has a new heat, but it has a new chill, too. Partly through the knowledge of a peach, he has left an Edenic state and must now be clothed.
This, ultimately, is why Catholics should see Call Me by Your Name. It teaches us that sexuality is not a toy, or a mere instrument to use as we please without consequence. Sexuality can be a dangerous thing, something which can upend our very own sense of self. The film is anti-pornographic, because its sensuality comes with emotional consequence. And while we can be reconciled to our sexualities and sexual choices, such reconciliation often involves deep pain, usually the pain of the honest look. Call Me by Your Name succeeds in approaching this honesty.
Also, see this recent review of the film by a friend of mine in Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal.
Some Catholics might prefer a film consisting of a lush Italian romance between twenty year old Christian coeds, where young attraction easily blossoms into mutual self-offering love in a chaste ease. But such a movie would be pornographic, because it would fail to depict the mixed bag of actual relationships. In contrast, the narrative mixture of love and pain in Call Me by Your Name makes it real.
My one big critique of the movie is a pretty terrible monologue by Elio’s father at the end, where the father gives his approval of Elio’s relationship with Oliver, and even praises it. Aside from being almost saccharine and awkwardly written, Elio’s father seems to miss the pain and dishonesty underlying much of the relationship, which appears starkly in the final phone call between Elio and Oliver. I don’t know entirely what to make of the conversation with Elio’s father. Is he just trying to live vicariously through his son? Does he feel guilt for his own relationship with his wife, which causes him to idealize Elio’s? Or are the writers just clumsily trying to deal with issues of age difference and power? Whatever the answer, I could have done without it.