“To make yourself feel nothing so you don’t feel anything. What a waste.”
Coming-of-age stories are often about discovery as characters emerge from childhood. They often harken back to the story of Eden, as Adam and Eve eat forbidden fruit and their eyes are opened to see and experience the world in new ways. In Call Me by Your Name, a young man spends his summer exploring new emotions and his sexuality. The process, like the Eden experience, is both painful and enlightening.
Elio (Timothée Chalamet) spends the summer with his family in their Northern Italian villa. It is a very intellectual family. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor of Greco-Roman culture. His mother (Amira Cesar) is an interpreter who brings a variety of cultures into the home. Elio describes them as a mix of American, Italian, French, and Jewish. Elio is something of a musical prodigy, spends his days reading and exploring a relationship with Marzia (Esther Garrel).
Then Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American grad student, arrives to spend the summer with the family. As the summer progresses, their relationship evolves into friendship, but a sexual attraction also grows between them. Elio is unsure of how to approach his sexuality, which expresses itself in various ways. It’s not so much about forbidden fruit, but about being overwhelmed by the variety of possibilities before him, and finding the choice that will most fulfill him.
The Edenic association is enhanced by the sumptuous cinematography and lush settings of the film. (My wife thought each shot was like looking at a work of art.) The leisurely pacing of the story allows viewers to enjoy the beauty of the time and place. The locations are just as seductive as the relationships that Elio is developing.
I hesitate to say that this is a story about the loss of innocence. Even the story of Eden can be read not as about a fall and sin, but as a movement to a fuller life. That is closer to what Elio experiences in this summer romance. He is learning what it means to love. He may be unsure of how to express that love or even the relationship of love and his awakening sexuality, but he is discovering that essentially to love means to open oneself. He also discovers that in opening himself he is exposed to the possibility of being hurt and hurting others. That is very much like Eden—it is a two-edged sword that brings both joy and pain.