Sometimes I watch a movie and I just cannot stop thinking about it. Sometimes I read a book and I cannot stop thinking about the book. Sometimes, I watch a movie and cannot stop thinking about it so I go to Barnes and Noble and buy the book that the film is based on so I can get more of the story. Then I finish the book and am left gutted. Well, this hasn’t happened in a while, but it recently happened with Call Me By Your Name, a film starring Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet that is based on a novel by Andre Aciman.
The general plot is that it’s a love story. Elio is a seventeen-year-old Italian boy whose family is a bit of an intellectual haven and his father, a professor, hosts graduate students each summer for six weeks to assist them in their graduate research in exchange for their help with his own research. What develops during the six weeks is a passionate affair between Elio and Oliver, the year’s graduate student. I had reservations about watching the movie. It was pretty hyped and I just generally wasn’t sure if the story would be told well enough so as to do the love story justice. So, a few nights ago I was home alone and noticed it was available for rent on iTunes. I decided to watch it and oh my. It is so layered, so detailed, so well done I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I needed to know more about Elio and Oliver’s story, where they go, what happens, if they find closure, etc.
So, I picked up the book. Beautifully written, fully capturing the obsessive-infatuated-irrational nature of first love, the book is a delectable tale of uncertainty, sexuality, and falling so in love with someone that you cannot possibly be without them. I particularly like that this story takes place over a summer because, while summer love can be a bit of a trope, the story’s trajectory is heightened because we know, from the very beginning, that time is working against them. In the novel, Elio thinks, “time makes us sentimental. Perhaps, in the end, it is because of time that we suffer.” The beauty of a story that discusses and unapologetically dissects sexuality taking place over the summer is that the trajectory is heightened in terms of their ending but the inhibitions and cautions people to take when they have an unknown amount of time are lessened. Knowing time is finite, Elio and Oliver do things and admit things and reveal things that would take non-summer love stories months or years to address. But ultimately, the issue with summer love is that the end of the relationship is a date that the people can pinpoint on a calendar rather than a date that may or may never come, depending on how things go.
Perhaps my favorite takeaway from the novel and film alike is the sense that pain is meant to be felt and that heartbreak will wound us, but we should not push away the pain. At one point in the novel, Elio laments, “Anticipating sorrow to neutralize sorrow–that’s paltry, cowardly stuff, I told myself, knowing I was an ace practitioner of the craft.” This sentiment hit me in the gut. In the past few years, I find myself often saying, “I prepared myself for x result.” But as I read the previous quote, I found myself feeling like anticipation never actually neutralizes anything. Further to this point, Professor Pearlman (Elio’s dad) has an incredible speech regarding heartbreak and the recovery process for heartbreak and during his speech he says, “if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is no better. 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!” There are a lot of moving parts underlying this speech, this moment between father and son, a moment of understanding and acceptance and unbridled love. But regardless, the message transcends all love stories and everyone who has ever been in love or will be in love can understand that it is important to be thinking, feeling humans. It is feeling, after all, that lends our humanity.
I recently watched an interview with Aciman, and the interviewer asked him what the name of the novel meant. Sure, the phrase “Call Me By Your Name” seems odd but with the repetition of “call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine” readers and viewers alike can sense that the name game between Elio and Oliver means something far more than just naming. However, Aciman’s explanation cuts deeper. He explains that this name game is actually a form of intimacy. The name switch transforms Elio and Oliver into one, as in “I am you and you are me and together we are one, unbreakable being.”
I highly recommend both watching the film and reading the novel. Both are incredible and tell a story that doesn’t fit a single category. It’s a love story, it’s a story of sexuality, it’s a story of coming of age, it’s a story of uncertain desire. All of the stories it tells are beautiful and subtle and will leave you aching to know more of Oliver and Elio. I will say I recommend reading the book because a lot of the movie, I realized upon reading the book, relies on non-verbal cues. So much of the film is accomplished through body language and facial expressions and small gestures. By contrast, the novel gives a stream-of-consciousness-like invitation into Elio’s mind as he experiences first love and the decades of ripples that continue from the initial spark.