'Call Me by Your Name' Is a Love Letter to Missed Opportunity

Luca Guadagnino's new film shows how, for many queer people, moralistic norms can create a sense of belatedness—even when they finally find love.
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Luca Guadagnino's new film shows how, for many queer people, moralistic norms can create a sense of belatedness—even when they finally find love.
Call Me By Your Name

"God, we wasted so many days," 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) says to the handsome American graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer), in Luca Guadagnino's new film Call Me by Your Name, an adaptation of André Aciman's 2007 novel. "Why didn't you give me a sign?"

Oliver, whose professor is Elio's father, protests, saying that he'd actually tried to signal his feelings to Elio: "Remember when we were playing volleyball, and I touched you, just to show you I liked you?" asks Oliver, as he nuzzles Elio's neck. But these signs were lost on Elio. While Guadagnino's coming-of-age tale shines a light on a range of topics—beauty, love, the discovery of loss—what's received far less attention from critics is its rich and subtle portrayal of the inherent belatedness of being queer, of how queer people aren't always able to act, at least not publicly, on certain emotions at the same time as their heterosexual peers. In a way that feels unique even in a season rife with masterful queer films, Call Me by Your Name shows how, for many queer people, moralistic norms can create a life of missed opportunity.

"Later!" Viewers hear this farewell from Oliver some half-dozen times throughout the film: When, on arriving to Elio's family's home in Italy for the summer, he's too jet-lagged to join the family for dinner, and so he asks Elio to make up an excuse on his behalf; when he rides away on his bike after one of his and Elio's many shared trips to town; when he shoots off to return to a pick-up volleyball game—after that winking shoulder massage. Much more than a mere verbal tic, though, "later" exists on a spectrum of time—lop off the r, and you have "late." Time's up. Day's wasted. That realm of possibility, once wide open, has now disappeared. "Just watch, this will be how he'll say goodbye to us when the time comes, with his, 'Later!'" Elio, his voice wrapped in snark, says to his parents shortly into the film, after Oliver has missed yet another meal.

The deeper point here, of course, is that Oliver's eventual departure entails not some see-you-soon farewell, but an outwardly restrained goodbye at a train station, and a realization of how much fuller their summer could've been if their relationship weren't taboo. By the end, it's clear that they wish that they'd found one another and detected their own desires just a bit earlier. On top of so much else, Call Me by Your Name is an exploration of the sometimes-heartrending ways in which time, whittled down by a nasty world, works against queer people. (The novel makes more of "later," with Elio remarking in the first section, aptly titled "If Not Later, When?": "I'd never heard anyone use 'later' to say goodbye before. It sounded harsh, curt, and dismissive, spoken with the veiled indifference of people who may not care to see or hear from you again.")

Guadagnino's film nods to the importance of time in other ways too. After Elio and Oliver's first kiss, for instance, Elio broods to the point of obsession over the ebullient scholar, who now seems aloof. He writes and re-writes potential notes to slip under Oliver's bedroom door, to get his attention, before he finally sticks with: "Can't stand the silence. Need to speak to you." Oliver simply writes back: "Grow up. See you at midnight." For an anxious, impatient Elio, the rest of the day is downright torture; his eyes can't stop meandering to his watch—even when he's having sex with his sort-of girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel). In such moments, the film points to the aching shortness of Elio and Oliver's relationship, and to how, for queer people especially, two things are often true at once: that some of life's most enjoyable experiences don't come fast enough, but neither do they seem to last for very long.

Also: the music. In particular: Sufjan Stevens' songs. Stevens wrote two original tracks for Call Me by Your Name: "Mystery of Love" and "Visions of Gideon." Of these, Guadagnino has said that he "felt Sufjan's lyricism, both in the voice and the lyrics," had a "beautiful elusiveness" and a "poignancy" he thought would resonate. At least part of the songs' emotive power, I suspect, lies in how they thematize and transmute time and, specifically, how they cling to memories.

"The first time that you touched me / Oh, will wonders ever cease?" Stevens sings on the chorus of "Mystery of Love," which viewers hear when Elio and Oliver travel to Bergamo for a brief work-play sojourn, right before Oliver returns to America. The song meaningfully parallels Elio and Oliver's own relationship, mirroring how a gnawing emptiness smacks into their initial bliss once summer ends. On a later verse, Stevens asks: "How much sorrow can I take?" By the third iteration of the chorus, he remembers, ruefully, "the last time that you touched me." Meanwhile, on "Visions of Gideon," Stevens wonders, again and again, about a past relationship: "Is it a video?" Crucially, the song plays during the film's final scenes; summer is over, and the world, fittingly, is now basically frozen. Oliver calls Elio and his family to say that he's engaged to a woman. Elio, his heart breaking, cries by a fire, rewinding, viewers can assume, through memories. Guadagnino employs music such that the characters, at times, don't have to say a word to convey the emotions they're working through.

While Call Me by Your Name has been largely embraced with gushing enthusiasm, it still has its detractors. A common critique includes the idea that the film is squeamish in its depiction of same-sex attraction—that it's "sanitized" and too pretty and, as a result, somehow limited. Yet in addition to a strange sort of protectiveness over queer suffering—of the warped concept that queer people must, necessarily, endure something ugly to feel something beautiful—this pushback doesn't pay attention to what the film actually says. For one: that queer people are indeed capable of being examined onscreen through more than a single, oversexed aesthetic expression. (Or, as the critic Mark Harris puts it for Slate, "I haven't heard a persuasive case that something meaningful would be articulated about Elio or Oliver if you showed sucking or erections or penetration.") As an account of growing up, Call Me by Your Name lovingly traces how to be queer is often to experience things later—or to register and make sense of them too late, when they've become only memories.