Coming-of-age films explore the slippery slopes of firsts: of mistakes, big time crushes and any encounters away from the parents’ home. Treading on unknown paths that could leave them susceptible, young protagonists are in turn rewarded with the treasures but also perils of life. Lone Scherfig’s An Education (2009) and Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name (2017) tell two such stories with bittersweet idiosyncrasy, shedding along the way small pearls of wisdom. Both teenage subjects find themselves crossing social and personal boundaries in their exploration of the thrills, challenges and beguiling possibilities offered by liaisons with older men. Whilst heedlessly following their feelings brings some trying blows, the life lessons they gain shape their own understanding (and the viewer’s) on the nature of giving and receiving an education.
Set in 1960s London, An Education follows intelligent 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) falling for an older gentleman, David (Peter Sarsgaard). Whisking her away to concerts, restaurants and art auctions, David offers Jenny a life of culture and luxury she has always craved for. However, as she immerses herself in David’s exuberant world and is eventually offered a marriage proposal, Jenny faces the question whether to give up her education, which, in being comparably more tedious, she can no longer justify having a use for. Call Me by Your Name begins when the handsome and confident scholar Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives to the house of archaeology professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) in an idyllic Northern Italian village to spend the summer as his assistant. A powerful romance blossoms between him and the professor’s 17-year-old son Elio (Timothée Chalamet), their bond unravelling in a lazy summertime drawl. Elio tests his personal limits by falling head over heels for Oliver: in discovering the power of consuming unruly attraction, he is left no choice but to hand over to another his heart and soul entirely.
Jenny and Elio are fleshed out as subjects of desire. Met with growing feelings of attraction, both come to terms with, and find an answer to, their innermost longings whilst mustering up the nerve to act upon their impulses. This mirrors a story Elio’s mother tell her son of a knight unable to tell a princess he loves her, tormented which side of the coin to pick: “Do you speak or do you die?” Both Elio and Jenny decide not to bottle up their feelings but take the plunge. As a result, they learn not only the pleasures their actions can bring but also its pains. Whilst Elio and Jenny experience the thrills of first love and sexual awakening, the shape of their desires and circumstances differ. Call Me by Your Name focuses more specifically on the psychological effects of Elio’s intimate physical encounter with Oliver, resulting in unexpected nose bleeds and teary breakdowns. Similarly, the pace with which their emotional connection matures is slow and pensive. By the time they fall for each other, their connection is so fully-fledged that Oliver’s departure (when it does come) is as clear-cut as a knife edge, leaving Elio reeling in pain. Jenny, on the other hand, finds herself as much seduced by David as by the luxuriant lifestyle he leads, offering fancy restaurants, dresses and weekend trips at the tips of her fingers paid directly from his own pocket. She sees a future with him more desirable than laboriously plowing through Latin homework in school (and later at university) that cannot even guarantee her the fun she is having now.
Given this difference, the stakes for Elio and Jenny differ dependent on their social circumstances. The narrative of Call Me by Your Name revolves around Oliver and Elio’s interchangeable acts of trepidations, playfulness, craving, impatience and lust. The film’s romance can easily be translated for everyone and for all times, as viewers are able to relive the feelings they had when they first fell in love. Importantly, Elio’s parents not only recognize but also embrace the romance, making the home a safe environment for their son to discover his sexuality. Neither Oliver nor Elio need to justify themselves but can instead enjoy the rare opportunity to live out their passions to their full intensity. Jenny’s experiences, however, do not play out in a bubble of safety but are very much rooted in the real world. Her relationship with David puts her in a position to make compromises with regards to her future that Elio does not face. In that sense, An Education is much more a social narrative on the choices women face in the 1960s, at a time of rising educational opportunities for women while having marriage’s financial security. Jenny’s parents are strict, overbearing and stringent with money, partly for their fear for Jenny and her future if she does not get the best education. Therefore, Jenny’s temptation to accept David’s marriage proposal is not only formed by the lifestyle she desires but also because it provides an alternative for finishing her education — one her parents could feasibly support. A risk shared by many women in her position, Jenny’s shortcut to happiness comes at the expense of her independence.
In both films, the role of parents, the advice they give and the meaning of education are fundamental. It is often pitiful the way Jenny’s figures of authority — her parents, schoolteacher and headmistress — assume stereotypical do-it-don’t-question roles that do not offer her, as an intelligent, ambitious student, a meaningful explanation as to why she needs an education. Even after Jenny discovers David was cheating on his wife, she accuses her parents for not having warned her from making the mistakes thousands of other young girls make. She therefore not only accepts her own mistakes but also the reality that her parents hadn’t steered her in the right direction. In contrast, Elio’s parents acknowledge his romance with Oliver but do not force him to shove his feelings under the carpet. In one of the film’s most heart-breaking scenes, Elio’s father tells his son that he should not suppress the feelings he had for Oliver but instead embrace them and live them to their fullest potential: “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of them faster that we go bankrupt by the age of 30.” His advice is that one should not only plummet straight into feelings of love and beauty, but also of sorrow and pain and be careful to quench neither. For if they are suppressed, one gets trapped by one’s desires that prevent one from maturing into the people that they are and want to be. In both films, the contrasting role given to parents and the guidance they offer depicts the importance of a good education, seen not only in the decisions Elio and Jenny make but also the manner in which they pick themselves up afterwards.
With education comes the value accosted to knowledge, intelligence and learning. Italy’s timeless landscape and the discovery of ancient archaeological findings complements Elio and Oliver’s transient, sultry summer of love. Significantly, Elio’s father, as a man of learning, teaches his son that in order to fully understand one’s history and humanity, one must come to terms with the shape and nature of one’s own emotions and behaviour. An understanding of the world complements the knowledge a person carries of themselves: of one’s body, desires, dreams and of learning the perils of putting oneself at the mercy of another. By the end of An Education, Jenny’s has withstood complete failure to find her intelligence stretched to new capacities. By pursuing her education and retaking the final school year she lost by dropping out, Jenny takes her life back into her hands to learn the hard way that one must persevere in order to live out one’s ambitions: that there are no short cuts to get what one really wants. Now as knowledgeable students of learning and life, Jenny and Elio have watched their emotional intelligence grow alongside them. Both stories depict with sincerity the way the protagonists’ journey showed them the prices of vulnerability and the necessities of being honest with oneself and towards others. Whilst they may take a fall and graze their knees, they can also get up again and nurture their open wounds.
Ellie Steiner (@gorodeckiellie) is a film journalist with a masters in film philosophy, writing for the publications Vague Visages and Unsung Films.