Call Me By Your Name is, at its core, a heart-wrenching tale of first love set against the idyll of 1980s Northern Italy. It explores the slow, burgeoning relationship between Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a seventeen-year-old boy on the cusp of manhood, and Oliver (Armie Hammer), an older research student who has been hired by Elio’s father.
Elio and Oliver’s relationship is a beautiful portrayal of the dizzying highs and devastating lows of a “forbidden” first love in a loud society that is not wholly accepting of it. Their intimacy must remain private and hidden from the wider world, and it is in private when their relationship is at its purest. But it is the film’s slow-burn, as well as Chalamet and Hammer’s simmering performances, that reveal the power dynamics that lie just beneath any burgeoning, passionate relationship. They also show that, ultimately, this jostling for power, as well as this secrecy, needs to be eliminated before any honest love, for each other and for themselves, can be truly experienced.
Before Elio and Oliver are truthful with each other, their conversations when they are alone are swarmed with noise. Whether it be from traffic in the square, or the loud running water of the pool, outside factors are discordant noises that drown out any chance at real connection between the two (at first). They serve as a constant, background reminder that the two are “playing with fire” and cannot be too open with each other in public as their environment is trying to stifle their calls.
The background noise is duplicitous though, as it also won’t let Elio forget his desire even though it longs to drown it out. During the scene where Elio is home alone, there is a constant banging in the background with no context of the source of the noise. He follows the noise and sneaks into Oliver’s room, and then, in an act of carnal desire, puts Oliver’s trunks over his head. After this, the noise inevitably leads him back outside of the room and to the balcony where he sees Oliver, the source of his desire. This constant banging is reflective of a sexual desire that he can no longer contain, and the fact that he is led to Oliver by the noise shows that he realises he must explore it for real for the banging to fade away into silence.
It is only after Elio expresses himself to Oliver, in the square by the war memorial, that the societal noises subside. The two exist with each other, intimately, in quiet, idyllic scenes of nature from then on. Exploring themselves as part of the natural landscape of the world, rather than existing as an afterthought in a cacophony of societal noise.
The War Memorial
During this scene in the square, Elio and Oliver round the memorial of the Battle of Piave while grappling for control of the conversation. A swaggering and slightly cocky Elio takes the conversational lead by correcting Oliver over the fact that the memorial is for a WW1 battle, not WW2. When Oliver retorts with “Is there anything you don’t know?”, Elio knocks the conversation onto a tangent that cuts straight to the core of their flirtations and reveals the common truth between them.
E: “If only you knew how little I know about the things that matter.”
O: “What things that matter?”
E: “You know what things…”
O: “Why are you telling me this?”
E: “Because I thought you should know.”
O: “Because you thought I should know?”
E: “Because I wanted you to know. Because I wanted you to know… because I wanted you to know… because I wanted you to know. Because there’s no-one else I can say this to but you.”
O: “Are you saying what I think you’re saying? Don’t go anywhere. Stay right here.”
E: “You know I’m not going anywhere.”
Elio has taken control of their relationship by owning what is between them and being openly honest and flirtatious in public. Oliver, who has until this point been the elder in control of the bantering between him and his ingenue, is cagey about Elio’s overtness and hyper-aware that they are in public. He is taken aback by Elio’s directness and can only throw probing questions that are answered swiftly and truthfully by the newly confident man he sees before him.
As well as the dialogue, the setting and the soundtrack serve to reinforce this transformation of ownership of power. While they speak, the pair literally skirt around different sides of the precipice of this massive emblem of historical weight. The camera stays with Elio while he repeats and mulls over his statement “because I wanted you to know”. He then briefly looks up at soldier at the top of the memorial with the Italian flag and a blue sky behind it. As he does this, the minimalist piano briefly rises on the soundtrack and drowns out the noises of the pedestrians in the square, marking a realisation of truth within him. He emerges out of the other side of the memorial in the open square and is truly honest with Oliver and the world around him. He has made a decision to embrace what he wants and not hide in plain sight anymore.
Oliver is visibly on the ropes after this revelation from Elio, and grapples to regain control of the situation. He tells Elio that “we just can’t talk about those kinds of things” and hands him some research papers to carry before turning towards the bikes they arrived on. The situation is seemingly diffused, though Oliver does seem to be rueing his handling of the whole conversation as he stands by his bike. Meanwhile, a carefree Elio, free of the shame of hiding what he wants, announces a race and starts the play for power off once again.
They race back fast and hard, both jostling for top spot, taking the lead and falling back in the natural beauty of the Italian countryside. It is on this journey back where their first kiss happens, instigated by a now sexually adventurous and excited Elio. He is out in the open with his sexuality for the first time and embracing it, whilst the more experienced Oliver is still reticent but willing to explore their connection in the privacy of nature. There may be a now open connection that is mutually acknowledged, but the grappling for power still exists between the two, so much so that it factors into the playful dynamics of their escalating intimacy.
From the offset, Elio and Oliver tested each other. They had a pseudo-teacher-student rapport of intellectual banter, testing and goading between them, one where Elio was constantly trying to impress Oliver but not let on that he was doing so (see the scene where Oliver asks Elio to play the piano for him). Since the start, their whole relationship manifested itself as a wrestle for power, and as their relationship moves onto a more intimate level, that wrestling remains at the forefront of their encounters.
Power, Sexuality & a Peach
Since Elio and Oliver constantly wrestle for power in every conversation they have, it is only fitting that their first foray into sex begins with an act of playful wrestling that turns slowly into an embrace. This act is not only a way of expression between the two in somewhat “normal” expectations of masculinity, it is also a physical metaphor for their relationship up until this point. They have been playfully wrestling with each other, emotionally, intellectually and physically, until they have reached this point where they can intimately embrace each other.
Following their first sexual experience together, the manacles of delusions of power have been broken, and the two exist as one with their bodies intertwined in the quiet of night. It is here where Oliver offers up the eponymous line:
Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.
This line is Oliver offering himself up to Elio, showing vulnerability, earnestness and overt emotion for the first time. He wants to own Elio, and in return, he is willing to let Elio own him. In this moment, they are equals in ownership of who they are and what they love.
The morning after, they separate to their own rooms to hide what has happened from the rest of the house. As they do so, Oliver realises the enormity of what he has done by offering himself up to Elio and seeks to gain control of the power once again. Through the adjoining door of their rooms, he orders Elio to take down his trunks and all-too-briefly performs oral sex on him before shutting the door in his face. In this one act of giving and then taking away, he shows Elio that he now has ownership of him sexually as well as emotionally. This leads us to the peach…
Peaches are a motif throughout the film, mostly through recurring images of the peach tree in the gardens of Elio’s home. The peach tree is definitely foreshadowing a pivotal scene in the film; the iconic one that follows Elio and Oliver’s first sexual encounter.
In the haze of a hot summer’s day, Elio takes respite in the attic room and lies on an unmade mattress. He thinks about the events of the previous day and uses a peach to replicate the brief fellatio that Oliver performed on him, in an attempt to finish this act that has left him sexually frustrated and also confused. He, for want of a better phrase, ejaculates into the peach and then falls asleep. Oliver then enters and wakes him up. He laughs at what Elio has done and then playfully goads Elio about the peach, calling it nasty and trying to eat it while Elio protests. Elio has only done this because of Oliver’s attempt at holding the power between them by performing oral sex on him and then shutting the door in his face. Now Oliver is literally laughing at him and calling him nasty while holding this emblem of power (and also Elio’s virginity and sexual innocence) in his hand and threatening to eat it. Elio breaks down crying so gutturally that it shatters the power struggle between the two. They just embrace each other in sadness and Elio says “I don’t want you to go“. Oliver’s realisation that he has pushed Elio too far ends all the sexual power games between the two, leaving only a tender connection that is to be ended all too soon. All pretence and ego has faded and the two exist as one again, as they did the night before.
Love My Way
The song, ‘Love My Way’ by the Psychedelic Furs, bookends Elio and Oliver’s relationship in the film, serving as an aural aphorism to signify the “new road” they have taken. The first instance comes during the “dance party”. Elio watches Oliver dance freely on the dancefloor with a girl, smouldering with jealousy for both him and the girl he is dancing with, before deciding to join in eventually and dance freely with them whilst the Furs sing “Love my way, it’s a new road”. In this instance, Elio has made a decision to explore love Oliver’s way and join him on that road, wherever it may lead.
The second instance of the song comes in the dreamlike haze of their trip to Bergamo towards the end of their time together. The whole sequence of their trip plays out like a fading memory: there is very little dialogue, other than when they scream each other’s names on the mountainside, and the use of dreamlike imagery and out-of-focus camera make the trip seem like a memory that is dying before it can be remembered. Elio and Oliver wander about the streets drunk in the middle of this dream sequence, stealing kisses from each other, before surreally happening upon a car that is playing ‘Love My Way’ on its stereo while a group of Italian hipsters dance by it.
Oliver runs over enthusiastically and starts to dance with the woman in the group and Elio takes a seat and watches them. This is a darker, less glamorous mirroring of the first scene that includes the song and Elio watches on with a sad vacant stare on his face. He is then sick as the realisation dawns on him that his time with Oliver is really ending. The parallels between the two scenes reflect the journey the two have taken together, showing that they have come full circle and embraced love their way.
As with most first loves, there is to be no happy ending. There time together is fading fast and the realisation that they must move on with their lives is creeping up on them. This is most notable in the scene following their drunken reverie the night before in which the war memorial of the battle of makes an unwelcome return. In the hotel room the next day, Elio’s dream of colour punctuates the scene. In it, they are dancing together on the war memorial, which represents the reality of history and culture weighing upon the couple. They cannot be themselves for guilt of literally dancing on the graves of their ancestors. This could also be seen as a manifestation of Oliver’s thoughts as he looks down at Elio, externalising his own feelings of guilt on to the situation.
First loves are often doomed to fail by predetermined fates of circumstance, but as a same sex relationship in the 1980s, the two have the weight of their “forbidden” love in a society that is not wholly accepting to contend with. They have taken a “new road” of self-acceptance, but now they must embrace the next path of their journey, a harsh reality of life without each other. Oliver departs on the train the next day, and just like that, their journey is over.
Embracing the Pain
When Oliver leaves, Elio is devastated and returns home to the safety of his accepting parents who help him deal with the emotional loss he is going through. His father, with one of the most honest and beautiful monologues, gives him some particularly sage advice.
We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste… just remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once and before you know it, your heart’s worn out, and as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it much less wants to come near it. Right now there’s sorrow, pain, don’t kill it and with it the joy you felt.
Elio’s father tells him to embrace the pain of heartache and remember it alongside the joy he felt with Oliver, so as not to become a husk of himself that cannot feel either joy or pain in the future. The ending of the film shows that he has taken his father’s advice to heart and embraced the sorrow so as not to forget the joy.
Months later, after a phone call with Oliver where he finds out that he is going to get married, Elio walks into the living room of his home and stares into the fire whilst snow falls outside the window behind him. The juxtaposition of the empty, cold scene behind him and the fire glowing on his face shows that he is taking his father’s advice. So as not to become cold and empty, he stares into the fire, crying, remembering and embracing all emotion to keep his heart alive.
He is feeling everything at once, embracing the sorrow and joy. Smiling and crying while Sufjan Stevens sings:
I have loved you for the last time. Is it a video? Is it a video?
Elio’s journey with Oliver has ended, but because he embraced love his own way, he is able to move forward in a cold, unforgiving world with the memories of a love that burned bright in the darkness.