In ‘Call Me By Your Name’, Desire is the Loneliest Thing

Sony Pictures

The first time I saw Call Me By Your Name, it was the fall semester of my sophomore year in college. I was enjoying a free pass to my first film festival, having just narrowly survived endless lectures on Russian Formalism. The packed cinema had been the largest screening I’d attended since the last Harry Potter instalment. When the film began I could feel the bouncy piano, to the tune of John Adams’ “Hallelujah Junction,” dance around me. I instantly knew what I was in for, and I was ready. For the rest of the 132-minute run-time, the sounds and colours flowed over and through me. As I come into myself, and experience more love and heartbreak, this film becomes part of my memory of that time in my life, and revisiting it feels like rekindling the flame of my past youth, and the different loves I felt and lost at the time.

Luca Guadinigno’s erotic masterpiece is still close to me for many reasons, most of which lie within it’s pure and unflinching display of desire. From the soft and saturated palette and unabashed horniness, it was the first time that I was enticed by cinema, experiencing the same enthralment in bodies and words as mimicked by the on-screen leads. The story is what it sets up to be, a lustful romp between a number of beautiful people, surrounded by a landscape that is almost mocking with its own allure. But with two years and several rewatches having passed, I’m finding a deeper connection with the film, known more to me now as a testament to deep desires and the epic loneliness it inevitably leaves behind. 

The first piece of dialogue sets up the lovers. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) looking out to and above his family’s new guest, the statuesque Oliver (Armie Hammer). “The usurper,” Elio calls him. With those words, Elio releases himself, making way for Oliver to immediately become everything and nothing all at once. A dance of maybes ensues between the two, increasing in excitement with every private display of affection.

Sony Pictures

It would be impossible and unfair to not sing the praises of then-newcomer Timothée Chalamet. He’s expressive and undoubtedly hungry to explore everything – from Bach and Talking Heads to the gorgeous people that surround him. Within his performance, desire is mostly a solitary act. A prodigy of music and language, he meets his match in his appetite for Oliver. His adult-like knowledge does nothing to stop his constant escape in childish appetites. In his defence, Armie Hammer works as this ultimate object of his wanting. At a nightclub Elio’s friends argue over who is luckier, Oliver or Chiara (Elena Bucci), who are dancing in Elio’s peripheral with hardly any space between them. In Call Me By Your Name however, people are not separate in their emotional and sexual beings. Physicality is merely an encapsulation of the soul; the entirety of person. Elio wants bodies because he wants everything. 

The titular quote sets up the film’s central idea, and lushly explores this notion: loving someone so completely and fully that you lose yourself to them. Luca expresses this inevitability with playfulness and beauty. Call Me By Your Name embraces the one-sided nature of these feelings, with secret-undercover pleasurings and pants sniffing. A glance is never just a glance, every secret look is packed with youthful longing. 

I’ll admit, during my first watch I felt Elio’s longtime and fluid relationship with Marzia (played by Esther Garrel) to take away from the supposed all-encompassing nature of his feelings towards Oliver. I’ve grown to find their relationship much more interesting and real, regardless of how it ranks with the main love story. She isn’t just a victim of Elio’s fleeting love, she completes him, and offers him a different fix. The familiarity of their hands to their bodies is entirely different from how Elio and Oliver’s find each other. Her pain is still visceral though, another time loneliness is the driving emotion in the film. Her character asks us what its like to be the first touch and kiss, but not the first love.

Sony Pictures

The film is still careful not to disregard the importance of these firsts. Call Me By Your Name deems the awkwardness in first encounters erotic, and boy does it work. The Chalamet-Hammer pairing is inherently hot, but their clumsy exploration of each other is what is most captivating. LGBTQ+ characters have rarely been afforded such a freeing space as the northern Italian countryside to explore themselves. The time period is clearly the early 1980’s nonetheless, adding larger commentary on queer love and cinema through the boys’ circling and coded language. Their inability to communicate adds to the back and forth between them and their want to have their individual yearning wordlessly understood by the other. This would to them, eliminate the possibility to do wrong, something Oliver deems particularly important when their lips finally meet. More sexy than that – the actual touching of their bodies – is how they get there, finding each other in the dark with laughs and aching tenderness – an awkward intimacy that is wholly unique from relationship to relationship, Newness and passion with Oliver against the comfort of Marzia. 

With all great love, must come a greater pain. James Ivory, screenwriter of Call Me By You Name, adapted from Andre Aciman’s novel of the same name, wants to ensure we do not shy away from it. We are with Elio when he is on the phone twice throughout the film – the first when he calls his mother to pick him up from the train station where Oliver has just left him, and the second, when Oliver delivers a devastating blow in the form of his engagement. We sit with Elio as he desperately whispers his own name into the phone, and we see this pain that cannot be escaped with wise words and embraces felt with such vulnerability. 

Sony Pictures

The wonderfully tear-jerking speech by Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) tells him that pain is the process for which we all learn to be in love and to be alive, and it shouldn’t be downplayed or ignored. We only grow in age to understand the equal parts selfishness and selflessness that comes with longing to be a staple of being. It is true that if we did not want, we could not know the pain of not having, or even worse, losing. But to not have those feelings is to barely be alive. With the right time, and right partner, the giving away of oneself can become the fusing of two bodies and souls into one. Sometimes those things don’t line up, and that’s okay. Young love isn’t less than, and infatuation isn’t necessarily separate from love, after all it is that feeling that we end up chasing forever. 


by Yashia Burrell

Yashia Burrell is a 21 year old film student from Virginia. She spends most of her time making films and listening to Phoebe Bridgers. She’s obsessed with Ari Aster and all things surreal, or related to Call Me By Your Name. You can follow her Instagram at @yashiaburrell and twitter @ylburrell.

1 reply »

  1. Your essay on this wonderfully sensual and emphatic film won me by its dedication to the play of natural passions so naturally explored by the writing, direction and performances. It has an emotional delicacy matching the subject. Kudos.


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