Now, Then – Later: Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name

Now, then: let’s start with Barthes.

“Bliss is unspeakable, inter-dicted […]: criticism always deals with the texts of pleasure, never the texts of bliss […]; thus criticism speaks the futile bliss of the tutor text, its past or future bliss: you are about to read, I have read: criticism is always historical or prospective: the constatory present, the presentation of bliss, is forbidden it […] you cannot speak “on” such a text, you can only speak “in” it, in its fashion, enter into a desperate plagiarism, hysterically affirm the void of bliss” (Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text).

If this doesn’t make sense, don’t worry. Don’t give it much thought, let it percolate. I think it will, later.

* * *

At almost the exact center of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, young infatuated Elio (Timothée Chalamet) wanders the beautifully appointed Italian summer home, shadows shot through by limonata sunshine and the omnipresent rustling of paper, only to stumble on Heraclitus’s Cosmic Fragments. The aphorisms of the pre-Socratic philosopher, called “the Obscure,” form part of Columbia graduate student Oliver’s classics research, the book draft whose revisions serve as a pretext for “il muvi star’s” invited six-week diruption of the Perlman’s multilingual pan-European home. In this moment, Oliver’s greatest source of stress becomes the object of Elio’s idle receptivity. He flips open to a page of notes, as Oliver glosses the text in a fade-in/fade-out voice-over: “The meaning of the river flowing is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but that some things stay the same only by changing…” And then he wanders upstairs, not giving it much thought, letting it percolate.

It speaks to Guadagnino’s belief (certainly his – the scene isn’t in James Ivory’s screenplay) in his audience’s cultural competence that we are never outright given the aphorism in any canonical form. Many have likely heard it without attribution, something to the effect of “It is impossible to step twice into the same river,” since the water flowing through it is always changing from moment to moment. It takes even more faith in your viewers to present them with a heterodox interpretation from one of the characters in absentia, that the real point of the fragment is not to focus on the essential transience of experience but rather to develop an appreciation of how the river maintains its “river-ness,” the essential properties that variegated experience ideally helps to clarify and distinguish. Changing helps us better respond to the oracular imperative to know ourselves; the flow of impermanence proceeds over the riverbed of the fundamental, glimpsed piecemeal through spots of sunlight, jets of foam…

But Elio is already upstairs, daydreaming of his lover. And so am I.

* * *

André Aciman’s novel entered my life, as some fiction invariably will, at precisely the right moment. The tragedy, of course, is that one cannot possibly know it is the right moment until it has passed. In the moment, I only knew I was reading Call Me By Your Name as a young man trying to sort out his sexuality, after some of the initial fitful and unflattering fumbles that give rise to that typical queer self-deprecation, and that like so many others, I saw myself in neurotic, infatuated, but completely game-less Elio. (Our shared experiences of reading in frigid water and a decade and a half of de rigeur piano recitals necessarily helped.) Encountering it felt, to me, momentous, epochal in the way Aciman lets Elio organize his life around the summer spent with Oliver: separated, irrevocably, into a “before” and an “after.”

When years later I would read Walter Pater’s conclusion to The Renaissance, in which he suggests of the artistic encounter that “to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life,” I immediately remembered Aciman’s novel, the delirious instability of having my self given back to me, anatomized through a veil of loss and yearning, even as the same work caused me to question everything I thought I knew about pleasure. Everything. Duration, distance, lust, love, the eros of the cum, blood, piss, shit, and vomit that Elio cannot look away from and that (with one exception) Guadagnino’s realization juxtaposes with the viscous ooze of yolk, fruit, and oil – each is interrogated, each is left in flux. This remembrance of things past offers no conclusions. In Aciman (small surprise, another Proustian), I find my paradigm for Barthes’s distinction between plaisir and jouissance – the pleasure of affirmation and the bliss of self-destruction (and, not incidentally, orgasm) – that, like those shameful acts of bodily evacuation, constitute the substance of text as something at once attractive and repulsive, a disgust I craved for its essential truth. Like Guadagnino I fall back on the clichés of 80s pop music, albeit all’americana: “Come on baby, make it hurt so good / Sometimes love don’t feel like it should.”

Many have already said that Call Me By Your Name is a powerful ode to love. What only I can say, in my experience, is that it confirmed for me that what I loved, as well as who, was worth loving. As Elio thinks desperately of Oliver at the novel’s conclusion, “he was more me than I had ever been myself.” This is what Elio was to me.

* * *

Thèse

Elio’s tragedy encountering Oliver is of a different sort – namely, it happens slightly too early. When Oliver arrives at the Perlmans’ house, the first thing Elio’s parents comment on is his sheer size – “I can’t fit the rest of me in the frame,” Hammer’s Oliver jokes. Guadagnino’s casting is purposeful, Hammer’s blonde beefcake dwarfing all of the other actors on set but especially the willowy Chalamet, twenty but playing seventeen, that awkward sort of seventeen spent waiting for the body to catch up to the mind. Chalamet’s Elio makes a show of shaving off a practically nonexistent moustache, stretches out languidly and blows on the thin wisps of hair in his exposed armpit, he looks down at his penis while peeing and asks it “Do I know you?” In his first onscreen sexual encounter with his girlfriend Marzia, he comes too soon, imploring her not to be angry with him while she giggles wetly beneath.

The symbolism behind the “apricot test,” a recherché bit of etymological prestidigitation between Professor Perlman and the newly minted assistant, is evident. Correcting Stuhlbarg’s specious account of “apricot,” Oliver blurts out that the word began life in Latin: “praecoquum, from pre-coquere, pre-cook, to ripen early, as in ‘precocious,’ meaning premature. The Byzantines borrowed praecox, and it became prekokkia or berikokki, which is finally how the Arabs must have inherited it as al-birquq.” Slumped in a chair across the office, Elio takes in this talk about a precocious fruit in full thrall, coolly smirking but refusing to look away. “He does this every year,” he confesses, abruptly ending the scene and returning Oliver to his place in a succession of assistants. But if it happens every year, this repeated insistence on precocity, what makes this one seem so special?

Surely it has something to do with the star around il muvi star’s neck, the avowed emblem of his Judaism. “My mother says we are Jews of discretion,” Elio eventually reveals, in a tender moment of coming out based around a nosebleed and Oliver’s bubbe’s dubious homeopathy. In a Catholic country where portraits of Il Duce can still be found over nonna’s front door, Mrs. Perlman’s attitude makes some sense. And yet what compels Elio to Oliver is his apparent willingness to advertise his affiliations – as an American, as a Jew, and perhaps as something else. His eventual breakup with Marzia occurs because of his own inadvertent advertising, as she catches him wearing Oliver’s oversized blue shirt, dubbed “Billowy” in the novel, after a three-day off-the-grid tryst and at his tearful return from the train station where they make their farewell. (All of this, by the way, after Elio has pointedly refused to wear another oversized shirt gifted him by a gay couple, friends of his parents and an index of internalized homophobia for both Elio and Oliver.)

The shirt merely reinforces Elio’s ineluctable smallness, providing him with a form and contour that he does not, may never, quite fit. As various critics express distress over the film’s implicit endorsement of a romance between a 24-year-old grad student and a 17-year-old spirituel, I am reminded of the casual dismissal with which Oliver signals goodbye throughout much of the film – “Later!” To me, the squeamishness of Elio’s desires, Oliver’s self-consciously pedagogical fulfilment thereof, and the implicit injunction that everything would be fine if these boys could just wait a while ignores and trivializes the overwhelming thematic of earliness that suffuses the movie with a kind of impatience with its own languorousness. Apricots ripen on the trees outside, characters pass from one bathing suit to the next, pages accumulate on Oliver’s (Elio’s) desk. And we’re tired of waiting. What if later could be now?

* * *

In the same month I was reading (and rereading) Aciman’s novel, in early 2010, I caught the initial release of Guadagnino’s fame-making film and first entry in what he has dubbed his “Desire” trilogy, I Am Love, in a Parisian cinémathèque. The word I most often hear associated with this production is “sumptuous,” and again – kismet! – I was perfectly positioned to appreciate its innovations on Italian family melodrama as well as its reinterpretations. Visconti’s The Leopard, with its lush textiles and haute-bourgeois traditions simultaneously gathering hypervisible dust onscreen, was the most obvious visual touchstone, and one fresh in my memory from an initial viewing. I had also just begun to get into John Adams’s minimalist piano works a few months before seeing his name flashed across the screen – all of the music in I Am Love is his, and his “Hallelujah Junction” for two pianos plays over the opening credits of Call Me By Your Name, a clarion call that establishes the aural equivalent of the film’s hazy oversolarization. The consonances felt equally cosmic as conspiratorial: never before had I experienced the sense of a film being made in corroboration of my existence, personalized to my tastes.

Until, of course, Guadagnino was attached to Call Me By Your Name. Uncanninesses accumulated. It was announced that Sufjan Stevens would be composing original music for the film, at Guadagnino’s special request. I fell in love with Stevens’s work circa 2006, while in high school, not even able to fully articulate what it was about his poetry and songcraft that spoke to me but, shall we say, suspicious (as proto-queers are) of the self-effacing anonymity of certain pronouns, the easy transition from family to friendship to, as Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) puts it in the film’s famous monologue, “perhaps more than friendship” – or else, as Elio puts it in the novel, troping on the easy elision between “my brother, my friend, my father, my son, my husband, my lover, myself.” In the intervening years his “Predatory Wasp of the Palisades” has become an anthem for queers of a certain age and disposition, while Facebook groups like “Is this Sufjan Stevens song gay or just about god?” begin to gather attention in mainstream media outlets. Notoriously mum on the subject of his sexuality, unlike the out-and-proud Guadagnino, the odes he has composed for Call Me By Your Name (as well as one remixed cut from 2010’s Age of Adz) invariably cut to the quick of love’s inevitable pains, coming off as eulogies for the possibility of pleasure itself.

In the anticipation leading up to the film’s release on the festival circuit, then its release in limited markets, and finally in its wide release where I could finally (finally [finally]) see it, I experienced a version of the phenomenon Elio experiences when they meet again at the Perlman summer house at the end of the novel: “Twenty years was yesterday, and yesterday was just earlier this morning, and morning seemed light-years away.” I remembered the curious thrill of seeing my passions put into production, my first love affair with Guadagnino as mediated by other earlier loves, and tried to steel myself for the prospect of deeper and greater loves moving in concert. Text, music, image – co-conspirators to return me to a place I remembered having been, a person I remember having been, with excruciating clarity.

* * *

Antithèse

Elio and Oliver’s experience together can be construed as tragic only because of its profound belatedness, the affliction of an abundance of “Laters.” “We wasted so much time,” Elio breathes to Oliver as they stand on the balcony outside his (or his? or their?) bedroom, on the eve of what is to be Oliver’s departure. “Why didn’t you give me a sign?” Oliver rightly brings up the sunlit publicity of a volleyball game among Elio’s friends, when he gave his shoulder a significant squeeze while taking a gulp of water. Elio had jumped away, Oliver laughs, “like I had molested you. So I decided to keep my distance.” In the second half of the movie, Oliver explains his aloofness through an overwhelming, and I think genuine, framework of care. And Hammer’s often silent stares offscreen obliquely communicate the limitations of his charm.

“Later!” Perpetually deferring, Oliver steps into the sensual paradise of the Perlman estate even as the fruit has already ripened on the branches. Apricots, pomegranates, lemons, peaches – all one had to do, practically, was reach one’s hand out the window and pluck it. “Daring you to desire them”: words Professor Perlman applies to the antique statuary he and Oliver spend their days poring over, but equally ripe with meaning for other local objects of desire. But even if Elio is there for the taking, impressing him with impromptu reimaginations of Bach, flirting before he even knew what to call it, Oliver knows better. His romantic history is, tragically, never made explicit, but we can read between the lines, can’t we, fellow queers? Who among us has not, even in these sex-positive times, heard variations on these theme?

“We haven’t done anything to be ashamed of yet. I want to be good.” “You aren’t going to hold this against me, are you?” “Are you going to hold last night against me?” “I don’t want you to regret any of it. I just dread the thought of having messed you up.” For all his swagger and self-assuredness, and for all Elio’s willingness to make Oliver into his mentor in love, Oliver’s credentials seem somewhat thin. While Elio openly mocks “Sonny and Cher,” the gay couple his parents invite over for dinner, for their “ridiculousness,” Oliver responds to the news by announcing (for once!) his absence from the house during dinner. Typically affable and outgoing, he returns home and slinks up the stairs with nary a word for the assembled party, watching Elio play piano. There is experience in Oliver, perhaps, but it would seem scarcely more than Elio – and what experience there is, with talk of “holding it against me,” of “wanting to be good,” and of “messing you up,” hardly sounds like the coy and affirming intimacy of Elio’s foot wandering over the floor to grip his own. “What are you doing?” he asks. Neither of them know.

In several shots of Elio, flies buzz lazily, landing gracefully on an exposed bit of skin. While others have speculated that these insectoid interlopers – combined with Elio’s nosebleed and Oliver’s all-but-necrotic scrape – are harbingers of the plaguelike ravages to come for this sort of boy. The deliberately backdating of the movie’s action to 1983 (from 1987) places it firmly in a prelapsarian world of global gaydom, before the discovery of AIDS. But the flies are also merely a symptom of that transition, inevitable, from ripe to overripe, the sense that the opportune moment is perfect and fleeting, that the merest delay will cause the fruit to give way to rot. The housefly’s life expectancy is between fifteen and thirty days. Time waits for no man.

* * *

In the weeks leading up to Call Me By Your Name‘s release, I carried the novel with me nearly everywhere. I kept meaning to re-read it; really, I did. On planes, on the bus, in cafés, back home for the holidays, holed up in a hotel room or ensconced in my own, Aciman’s novel was my constant companion and a source of daily devotion. But every time I tried to make a serious dent, I was consumed with anxiety. Friends asked to borrow my copy after listening to me rhapsodize (hi friends); I lied, dithered, delayed; I wasn’t quite done with it, maybe next week. This is a condition that I suspect afflicts more lovers of art than might be immediately evident, a paranoia over rereading a text that has managed to bring you not merely pleasure, but bliss as well. I have spent the past two thousand words arguing that my reading of Call Me By Your Name, its role in my life, is not only pivotal but particular, the product of the perfect circumstances that amplified its influence, that intensified my feelings toward it. How could I possibly hope, in returning, to discover what I had originally found? What if it had changed?

The irony was not lost on me that this was the novel’s fundamental problematic, an aesthetic riff on Heraclitus’s river. And “it” cannot possibly have changed – the text is there, in black and white. No, my anxiety over returning to the river was borne out of a worry that I had changed, that in my reexperience of Aciman’s novel I would discover how foolish it was, or how foolish I was for thinking it great, or how flawed, or how unhealthy. And by extension, these anxieties fed into my anxieties about seeing it put onto the screen, projected, larger than life, the substance of my fantasies already accreting early Oscar buzz, as though that did anything to mitigate my anticipated horror. A universal story of love and youth, it was called. Here I stand, universalized, open to everyone, too easy and too straightened out, too bourgeois and too doting, lacking in grit and tacitly endorsing pedophilia. What if, what if, what if.

In his autobiography, Barthes reflects on a caboose that, in his youth, transported him between Bayonne and Biarritz during the summer holidays. The caboose is long gone, as well as the tram that supported it, but the memory of the joy remains. “This is not to mythically embellish the past with myth, nor to express regret over a lost youth by feigning regret over a tram,” he clarifies. “It is just to say that the art of living has no history: it doesn’t evolve: the pleasure that vanishes, vanishes forever, beyond substitution. Other pleasures come, which replace nothing. No progress in pleasure: nothing but mutations.” He’s right, of course (Barthes is always right), but I found his words had little consolation for me. I was not ready to see this pleasure vanish. And worse, I wasn’t ready to resign myself to its vanishing – as Elio puts it in the novel, to experience “the way nostalgia hurts long after we’ve stopped thinking of things we’ve lost and may never have cared for.”

* * *

Synthèse(s)

I’m going to have to pull a Barthes. Aciman himself did; in 1984, he wrote a piece for Social Text that sought to explicate the erotically charged method behind the theorist’s thinking. “Barthes,” he contends, “is stimulated by thought as an onlooker is stimulated by a ‘spot of flesh’ […T]he observer stares because he hopes to unlock the meaning of his desire […] It is a sort of stimulated, abridged version of the world which sublimates desire. It does not repudiate desire; it merely says ‘later.'” (How can one not immediately think of Oliver, desiring an infinity of delay to more sweetly appreciate his own desire?)

In writing about Call Me By Your Name, a film whose bliss I have been yearning toward replicating through the merely pleasurable confines of criticism, I feel I am living out the extended joke Aciman tells in this article about Barthes trying to write a love letter. The first is an effusion of anguish – as Elio might say, “way over the top” – and he tears it up; his hysteria is embarrassing. The second letter is sentimental, lyrical – gimmicky. The third is kitschy, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, now so far removed from sincerity that the best he can do is say “let me show you why I cannot be sincere, for by showing you this perhaps I will become ‘sincere’!”

There is only one solution, to approximate my love and to mitigate against my embarrassment and my agony. Here is a collage.

Now

Elio met Oliver, and Oliver met Elio, at precisely the right time – unless, of course, they should never have met at all. Call Me By Your Name is not a tragedy – unless, of course, it is. Love endures – unless it fades. In the final shot, over Stevens’s brutal “Visions of Gideon,” expressions play over Chalamet’s features, ranging from despair to wistfulness to anger to joy to, as he prepares to reply to his mother’s concilatory “Elio?”, a resignation so profound that the direct stare into the camera feels, like the final freeze frame of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, entirely natural in its staginess. Over the duration of the coda, indeed of the film, Elio has become something different, someone different, a testament to Chalamet’s skill. Where he was once predisposed to stump around the house, almost to lower his voice artificially, he has found a natural grace, effortlessly pirouetting into an armchair. Where he soundtracked his life entirely to Schoenberg and Bach, he dances gleefully for a moment to whatever is on his Walkman, perhaps some pop that Oliver has helped turn him onto. Before our eyes he has become himself, no different than what he was, but somehow changed. In the fire, I hope he sees this.

Then

The river is Elio’s most secret place, a repository of cold spring water that shocks Oliver at first splash. “You wouldn’t believe how many books I’ve read here,” Elio muses, wading out by way of invitation. Stretching in the sun, glistening, two boys splash and swim, flirt, and eventually exchange their first kiss nestled in the grass of the bank. In this river, Elio finds it in himself to declare his affections, relying, as usual, on body language to supplant the “futile devices” of his fumbling words. At splashing distance from Oliver, he takes a giant step toward him, reaching out for his chest and beaming goofily. Oliver rolls his eyes. But it’s worked. When they return to the river, in the gray and scarlet dawn the night after their first night together, the mood is tense. The shot is quiet, but on edge in its post-coital silence. We see Elio at the right side of the shot, splashing, standing, thinking, no doubt, about something private. The camera pans left to Oliver, two hundred yards away, looking at Elio, then away, before he dives beneath the silvery water. This is not the same river it was before – what has changed?

Later

In the past week, Guadagnino has lent credence to rumors that he hopes to use Aciman’s characters, like Truffaut’s Doinel or Linklater’s Jesse and Celine, as the basis of a trilogy of its own. Aciman has expressed his support, even if there doesn’t seem to be much material in the novel. The purist in me worries that such a desire to wring out two more movies, the competence of everyone involved in the project notwithstanding, will smack of fan-fiction. Still, the film ends on a point of culmination – what will Elio do now that Oliver has decided what he will do? – that, when extended, provides the novel with much of its poignancy. In constructing this artificial paradise, Guadagnino has given us a river to fall in love with. He has given us Heraclitus, who sagely suggests that we can never enter the same river twice. And he has made me think, obsessively, of Barthes’s Lover’s Discourse, which I’ll quote here:

“Am I in love? – yes, since I am waiting. The other one never waits. Sometimes I want to play the part of the one who doesn’t wait; I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late; but I always lose at this game. Whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover’s fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits.”

Call Me By Your Name, at its core, is so affecting a film because it is not quite clear who is the lover and who – by contrast – is the beloved. Elio and Oliver seem so pure because the waiting is mutual, the dilation of time itself binding them together in a negotiation of the fleeting perfection of presentness. The irony of being the lover is that there is bliss in waiting, in holding out hope, even as the waiting itself allows disappointment to gather in the shallows. “Shall I sleep within your bed, river of unhappiness?” This question haunts the final verse of Steven’s “Mystery of Love,” soundtracking the lovers’ amble over the mountains screaming each other’s names, and it is a question that anyone who has loved with any strength at all implicitly asks when they imagine, in their darkest moments, the antithesis of the evaporation of affection: the hideous knowledge that your love has become you, that you can never escape it, that it has become essential. That in helping you to know yourself, it has made you jealous about something you could not do without, while also serving as a reminder that nothing can possibly last forever. That you might have to wait forever.

But I’m already upstairs, dreaming of Elio and Oliver, and what Guadagnino might have happen to them next. I am waiting. It hurts. I hope you want to, too.

“Bliss is unspeakable, inter-dicted […]: criticism always deals with the texts of pleasure, never the texts of bliss […]; thus criticism speaks the futile bliss of the tutor text, its past or future bliss: you are about to read, I have read: criticism is always historical or prospective: the constatory present, the presentation of bliss, is forbidden it […] you cannot speak “on” such a text, you can only speak “in” it, in its fashion, enter into a desperate plagiarism, hysterically affirm the void of bliss” (Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text).

Next time, and less obsessively/narcissistically (?), Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.

1 thought on “Now, Then – Later: Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name”

  1. Just read this post, Michael. I watched Call Me By Your Name last weekend and had watched I Am Love last year. And I was also thinking of Barthes when watching Call Me By Your Name, not only his The Pleasure of the Text but also his autobiographical vignettes, tracing his encounters with men and boys in Paris, Morocco, and elsewhere. To me, Guadagnino’s aesthetic is the poetry of the moment–lyric. And Barthes is the theorist of the moment. They speak to each other.
    Also, I love the way you have woven your own experiences into this review-ish piece. Very Barthes-like.

    Like

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