2018 Film Essays

‘Call Me by Your Name’: On Obsession, Growing Up and Falling in Love

In the Summer of 1983, somewhere in Northern Italy, the precocious and bolshie teenager Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) swans into view in the first frames of Call Me By Your Name. As the third feature in director Luca Guadagnino’s thematic Desire Trilogy (following I Am Love and A Bigger Splash), the film delicately frames an aching, raw love story under the baking Lombardian sun. Lazily stretching into yet another summer of tranquil hedonism, Elio seems at ease in the film’s opening. He has no idea yet of what Oliver (Armie Hammer), the statuesque graduate student spending the summer with his family, is about to make him feel so intensely, for the very first time.

When you’re 17, you’re either bored or you’re obsessed. You feign boredom to keep your obsessions private and your weaknesses invisible, which makes you obsess even more in a dull, insistent way which goes on to form the fabric of your emotional body. Whether it’s a song, a night or a series of looks across the dinner table, it doesn’t have to mean much to anyone else for it to consume you. You’re quietly, wildly obsessed. This is how I was anyway, and this is what Elio feels like to me like in Call Me By Your Name.

Obsession is usually a dirty, frightening word. Brian De Palma’s 1976 melodramatic thriller Obsession gives you what you’d expect of it: simultaneously comedic and dark, the kitsch psychological enigma prods at a person’s psyche, and dissects its preoccupations as anomalies, keeping the obsession at fiction’s length at all times.

In cinema, obsessions tend to fuel psychological thrillers, murder investigation and twisted horror explorations. In the real world, if you have an obsession, you’re often quietly advised to go and get help. Obsession can be synonymous with addiction — it can breed life-threatening danger to yourself and to those who surround you from physical violence, intentional threat or unfortunate misconduct.

But the kind of obsession I’m talking about in Call Me By Your Name is the nagging, mundane sensation that rattles around your brain for as long as your hormones will let it. There’s nothing really glamorous, dangerous or hugely Hitchcockian about that. It’s got nothing to do with horror. It’s a carnal, electric reaction that sparks the obsession. Something stirs inside that messes with the controlled alchemy you’ve been honing, it messes up the one-line description people would use if they described you in film reviews, which might sound something like: “Elio is a precocious teenager who spends his lazy summers reading books and transcribing music.”

But then this calculated alchemy is thrown, as you experience what you think an explosion would probably feel like — everything you thought you knew about yourself you no longer do, and you become obsessed. Elio with Oliver, Oliver with Elio, they wear each other’s names out and it takes you back to the gnawing, all-consuming obsession of your own.

When it happens for the first time and even the first few times, it’s exciting, it’s brand new, and it’s all yours — because until you share your life with someone, the obsession you create around an object of desire becomes a way of discovering more of yourself. This attraction and affection that you give to this person, Elio to the adonis-esque grad student Oliver, it wakes you up.

Is this what people mean when they say “grow up”? Like Oliver does to Elio, off-hand, but almost as a requirement before they can be with each other? Everyone teaches you about history, about culture, about money and safety. But no one teaches you about navigating your emotions for another person, and how your relationship with yourself starts with your first, big obsession, around 17. I’m still not sure how it ends.

It’s different to being in a relationship; a comfortable, stable, reciprocated, relationship. Loving, or even just wanting someone, is an electrifying feeling when you’re young — all on your own. You’re Elio Perlman, this house is your kingdom and you know it inside out. You’re intelligent and you know this, so you’re proud (a bit too much sometimes), you’re ahead of your friends, and you’re bored. And when you meet Oliver, you are all of this but you’re also nothing at all.

Where Call Me By Your Name gets it so right is in being relatable but not generic, moving but never melodramatic. It’s hugely tender and personal on details that would be the butt of a joke or the premise for a plot-defining question in another coming-of-age story. It remembers the time that you didn’t say thank you to your mum, because you were too busy trying to look busy in front of someone else. It celebrates your showy, bolshie swagger as a teenager dressing up, to look like you didn’t even think about it. It shows the moment your voice and heart broke in public, stifling a cry on the phone and crumbling under everything you tried so hard to build.

The film lingers, and allows these moments of self-discovery (or rather confusion) to breathe and reach out past the screen. In one singular space, you feel insecure, confident, charismatic, inferior and completely clueless, as if it were a revolving door never allowing you to stop and walk through, towards something bigger, maybe even something grown up.

It’s exhausting, but the gymnastics are always only in your head. So, you carry on; sometimes it takes you another drink and sometimes all you can do is repeat what they said in the voice that your dumb, childish anger wants them to sound like. Whatever happens though, letting go of the last word isn’t an option. Not when you’re obsessed like Elio.

Chalamet is a force of nature as the wildly passionate 17-year-old in Call Me by Your Name. Elio lingers on Oliver’s scent — not just once, not just from his shirt, but again and again, from the paper his thoughts floated onto, and from his fingers, intertwined for a moment, but a forever longer than his time with Marzia.

Elio’s obsession with Oliver’s anatomical existence is so skillfully portrayed. He doesn’t wistfully look over once, just so that the audience can catch on. He obsesses as many times as he needs to, smelling the same scent, trying the same tricks. There are usually a few more moments of repeated obsession that aren’t shown in public, that aren’t shown on screen. But they are there.

These moments aren’t exposed, hidden, questioned or mocked by the film: they’re allowed to exist. The moments that I torture myself over, the number of times I check when my obsession was last online on Facebook, when I make sure that they, if no one else, have seen my Snapchat story. You lose your manners, you lose a grip of what you are told you love, by yourself and by others.

Books don’t matter, music loses its rhythm. Elio plays Bach but he can only hear the melody when he knows that this is his advantage over Oliver. The music comes to life when Oliver gives it a heartbeat. Although Elio keeps saying how much he reads, the actual books are barely mentioned — and when they are, they are hardly acknowledged. Elio makes Heart of Darkness feel like a slapstick prop in a fascinating scene where desire, discovery and disgust melt into each other.

It is a love story between two people, but Elio is obsessed. The pain and tender devotion I feel for this story comes from my feelings about Elio, and how it makes me question myself. As I watched Call Me by Your Name for the first time, I found myself relating to reactions and moments to my own low-key “I’m Jewish and I speak several languages, let me impress you” episodes. It’s the moments where you let yourself be defined by things that you own but have never particularly wanted. You wouldn’t usually care about religion or languages, but it might just make others want to understand you. But instead of drifting towards a past or present obsession of my own, I stayed stuck.

Stuck on Elio and Oliver, but also stuck on me, and stuck on this overwhelming feeling, or overflow of feelings that I started to drown in. I was neither distracted by their existence of fiction, nor thrown into my own narrative of the moment. I was floating in a moment between boredom and obsession of my own, where the feelings of the way I react, love and obsess inside my mind took over questions about how any relationship could have played out with another person, on screen or off.

When Elio jokes about Oliver getting married to find out that he actually is, the moment is both upsetting and unsurprising. Inevitably, as with any well-written love story, it ends in adversity. But also by that point, it doesn’t actually matter. What they lived together existed in an isolated, idyllic microcosm that will never be able to be broken. That perfect one-night stand that you’ll never get back, the summer romance that will never reignite; these are moments that exist in their own contained reality, regardless of what happens now in that person’s life in any relation to yours.

The scales really don’t add up: three years of obsession can revolve around three individual nights, while the devotion of two years of mutual companionship can fade away in a summer haze without any tangible heartbreak at all. It’s not fair, it’s not right, and this is the part of obsession that does feel harmful. You want the things that treated you well to be the things you remember and latch onto, and you want to forget (or at least lie about) the moments that forgot you just as fast.

But that’s not the way obsession works — even if the other person is getting married, or even always was married: whatever you shared, whatever entered your brain and your life, that’s there to stay as long as your obsession will let it. However big or small, it’s the intensity of the explosion rather than its radius that remains, long after the flames have gone out.

Music plays a big part in obsession — when you have no more than one night or what feels as short as that, you relive it however you can: messages, photos, scents, songs. Like film, music has an intense connection to an emotional part of your brain that triggers you almost as much as a physical touch. To let the songs play out almost fully over each scene in Call Me by Your Name creates an incredible impact. Playing out once, you have time to listen, to dwell, to unpick every detail of the moment. Screen time may be three minutes, but it feels as long as an evening of 15 repeat plays of whichever “Your Song” does in real life.

“Mystery of Love,” the first of two original songs composed by Sufjan Stevens for the film, travels across lush forests and through the mist of waterfalls in Oliver and Elio’s weekend away. It feels like a whisper that only they can hear, one that seals the confines of their tiny universe together in their final moments. It’s tinged with sadness as the end is in sight, but carries the hope and mystery that fuelled their love to get this far.

The devastating final shot of the film is more of an opus in itself than just one formative shot, and “Visions of Gideon” is the song that cements itself as a heartbreaking and painfully stirring image of obsession with it. In Elio’s eyes, in the warm glow of the fire which is as close to Oliver’s summer sun as he’ll get, there is the whole summer.

When you’re obsessed, there are the furiously passionate and upsetting moments, the clueless, careless play fighting and the frustrating moments where you hate yourself for being young and being clueless and so vulnerable. In one agonizing stretch during Call Me by Your Name, you see Elio cry and break down as if to never recover — and then you see him smile. You see how many moments flash and swirl by, tearing at his obsession and masochistic immersion in everything he can cling onto. And over all of this, there is the song. You’re almost convinced that Elio can hear it; the slow, agonizing lament of a goodbye that is lived again and again with each repeated lyric: “is it a video?”

Playing out the whole song allows enough time to visualize a handful of searing, painful moments. It allows you to torture yourself with them — where all you’d need would be to end the song to distract yourself with another mundanity. But by letting the song play out and letting you relive your moments, you’re feeding your obsession. In a way, you’re harming yourself; you relive the pain instead of “moving on,” whatever that actually means, allowing yourself to refrain from suffering by forgetting.

But the indulgence and masochism in repeating and rewinding the music lets you hold onto the memories with the closest, most absorbing thing you have to a tangible reminder of what that feeling was ever like at all. It allows you to communicate when you no longer can, where interaction isn’t an option anymore but you feel like you’ve got to expose those emotions or you might just psychologically combust; you cling onto the initial spark that lit up and still does in that song — regardless of its intensity now.

“Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.” Elio, Oliver, Elio… Elio… Elio… Elio, Oliver. I spent a lot of time thinking about what this moment meant, I think it relates to the feeling of identification that the film gives you. Elio, Oliver — they are for each other and they complete each other. They evolve in the film, constantly flirting with each other’s confidence and insecurities, in turn taking control and showing care, chasing around each other’s hearts.

In the end, the focus is back on Elio, back on his stare and the soundtrack to their story. It then makes me think of my own; the stories and soundtracks I had when I was 17, the ones I now have at 21. I can call them whatever I want, the names might change but they will always be mine and I will be bolder, brighter from my own healthy obsession.

I hope Elio doesn’t grow up. I’m not sure I want Oliver to explain what he meant when he told him to grow up in the handwritten, melodramatic note (which he probably sprayed with perfume himself) that he so casually just passed back across the corridor. What makes Elio so fascinating, and what has built such a fandom (CMBYN fans are now being likened to the Rick and Morty fandom of arthouse cinema), is how cocky, selfish, intelligent, clueless, sensitive, vulnerable, bored, ridiculous and devastated he is all of the time, all at the same time. That’s what you’re like when you don’t know how love feels at 17 and it’s all you can think about. Call Me by Your Name made me feel like that at 21.

It felt magical and a bit too real. It was something I certainly hadn’t read about, and now almost feel embarrassed to look at again, like a fleeting romance that I’m just lucky to now obsess over but can’t relive. If that feeling fades with time, experience, or a more objective understanding of what love and obsession actually means, I’m not sure I want to grow up either.

Ella Kemp (@ella_kemp) is a film critic and photographer based in London. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film & TV studies and maintains a passionate love for good design and great relationships on screen. She writes about film, TV and music for Little White Lies, the Independent and Into the Fold.

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3 replies »

  1. Thank you for the spectacular essay. Let me just say upfront that I am obsessed with CMBYN. I have lost track of the number of reviews I have read. In your essay you really dig into first love and how it can consume you, and the revelation that comes when you realize you have no idea what is happening to you, or how to navigate falling in love with someone (your obsession). At times it’s down right terrifying. Your perspective is on point, and it’s the experience and impact of first love that is universal. When love brought them to their knees with exhilaration and that all consuming heartache. I had such an experience when i was 17 which is why the film (and book) touched me so deeply, and Elio’s character in particular.

    Should Elio grow up? The advice given to Elio by his father speaks so eloquently to how hard that question is to answer as you experience love past your first. “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster that we go bankrupt by of age 30, and have less to offer each time we start with someone new.” Everyone’s natural tendency is to protect themselves (their heart) from being broken based on their past experiences in love. Such wonderful advice and insight. But what a difficult path to follow.

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