The Capricious Ways of Desire
in Call Me By Your Name
an essay by bianca huang
art by lily taylor
I have almost memorized the architectural layout of the Perlman’s summer home from the tapestries hanging along the staircase, to the spatial distances between the second floor balcony and Elio’s bedroom window. Every intercut to a still-like portrait of the Italian summer-scape has become muscle memory.
After a fourth viewing of Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name (2017), I can confirm that this film has affected me so deeply in a way that few films have. It has literally consumed me, and I have surrendered so much of myself to this story that it scares me.
André Aciman’s book is also a dangerous text of submission. Elio’s internal narrative mirrors much of my own way of thinking. At times I felt like I was reading something I wrote from a different time in my life when I fought with myself and my own desires. The book is something I’ve latched on to very closely. The dog-eared pages mark small bites into a world— one day I think I might swallow it whole!
What fascinates me most about the story is Elio’s desire for Oliver. It is the most unflinching, shameless, and honest depiction of the trajectory of desire. I recognize much of myself in Elio— that’s what scares me. I am exposed. My once secret ways of deduction and communication that I have spent so much time keeping to myself have now been revealed without my permission.
Why do we bottle up talking about desire? Is it because we fear baring ourselves naked to not just the other, but also the world? Call Me By Your Name is an invocation to its audience to look within themselves and confront their memories; to search for a time when you descended into the delirium of desire in hopes of wanting another. In Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, he illuminates on this delirium we experience when one’s desire becomes obsessive. When the loved object is absent, desire morphs into a survival need that renders us vulnerable. We become inhibited and weak. Elio’s body becomes a site for this social catastrophe Barthes describes; Elio’s nose bleeds, he begins to talk to himself, he doesn’t know what to do with his hands. He descends into a swoon cluttered with ideas that he knows are exaggerations, but continues knowing that it brings him closer to Oliver’s world. Moreover, Call Me By Your Name shows us what happens when we want someone so much that our thinking becomes murky and our bodies are unprotected.
It is difficult to know when desire begins and ends. Desire rejects stasis and is brilliantly amorphous, but here I attempt to navigate a so-called ‘trajectory of desire’ through Elio and Oliver, in hopes of better understanding why we crave their love so obsessively, and how desire lies in the metaphysical.
You Notice Them
In the beginning, one notices the other. This is the first stop in the trajectory of desire. When I first notice someone, I begin to over-think the most microscopic things, the private things, the seemingly meaningless things. The way someone rolls up their sleeves past the elbow, or looks over at you at the dinner table; mundane details can all mean something if you want them to. Every inference is a closer step to understanding them. The one you desire is letting loose these secret messages for you. They may be ridiculous or foolish, and you know this, but it’s too late. You have already created a pleasurable fiction. Elio too, observes Oliver closely with precision: Oliver’s ravenous eating of soft-boiled eggs signifies his arrogance, or the different frequencies of buoyancy in Oliver’s cycling indicate his mood. The ordinary becomes the fantastical.
Barthes notes how desire forms in the emptiness of words. The more desire grows and forms lesions inside of us, language fails to help us convey any clear meaning. Suddenly, our body utters what language conceals. Barthes suggests it’s easier to mold his messages through the body than through our voice. Similarly, Elio is purposefully obtuse; he does not communicate well with others, so he must rely on the minutest deductions of body language to understand Oliver. What is inferred by a quiet smile; a swift movement of a glass; a firm touch on the shoulder; an icy glare? This is Elio’s code; a code of communication expressed through the physical. Every inflection of the face, or stolen gaze is an invocation to the body.
Obsession and Play
Bodies glisten, fresh from the lake while cicadas vibrate with sonnets. French doors boom and echo from the second floor balcony. The smells, sounds, and surfaces of an Italian summer are more potent than ever as Elio’s senses are heightened because of Oliver. The environment of desire is a character in itself; the apricot trees and everglades are comforting elements that equip Elio with the courage to take what we want most. When in Paris, Barthes speaks about how the city was prone to dazzling his person. The Parisian boulevards, light, and fall weather isolated the feeling of big raucous cities, and shone a spotlight on the object of desire. Surroundings can enhance our desires and become a catalyst for disrupting bodily silence.
The grand music room becomes an oasis for this disruption. When Elio interacts with his piano, for a moment, his body is without shame. His chest expands and retracts, synchronized with every crescendo and decrescendo. It is on the piano that Elio’s body arrests Oliver’s attention and teases him till Oliver must work for Elio’s affection. From Lizst, to Busoni, Elio resists to play the phrase that stirred Oliver the first time. Elio’s hands play every stanza with exaggerated flourishes. His head jolts abrasively at every crescendo with a flair of arrogance.
In Call Me By Your Name we encounter another site for freeing the body: Monet’s berm. This is Elio’s spot. The shallow, chilled water envelopes the two lovers in the shape of a kidney bean. The stream is mirrored on panels of Oliver’s linen shirt while his hair turns to gold. Birds are chattering above, almost encouraging Elio to act on his emotions. Meanwhile Oliver refreshes himself, essentially washing Elio all over him in a baptismal nature. Elio freely lunges and tackles Oliver with ecstasy.
No matter how much Elio tries to restrain himself, his body insists and asserts itself. When there is no reciprocation, our body bottles each temptation and little by little, they dribble out in the form of obsession. One of Elio’s first instances of obsession is illustrated through detailed documentation of Oliver’s rotating swim trunks. Every colour denotes Oliver’s mood of the day, and these fixations become a method of furthering Elio’s understanding of Oliver. Four personalities and four swim trunks: red signifies bold, gruff and ill-tempered, or to keep at distance; yellow is a sign of playfulness, humour, but to be approached with caution as it can easily turn to red; green is rare for an eagerness to learn and to speak; and blue is most favourable as it signifies a moment when Oliver stepped into Elio’s room or massaged his shoulder. Something as commonplace as swimming trunks morphs into an enormous invitation into Oliver’s world.
André Aciman has said that there are many people inside of us. When desire erupts, we fight with our many selves who speak to us. The intimate and sometimes disgusting thoughts come to play when we least expect it. And so we begin to punish ourselves through pangs of shame and a piercing detest for the desired. Barthes writes about how desire undoes us and makes us susceptible to ascetic behaviour; “I shall punish myself, I shall chasten by body: cut my hair very short, conceal my eyes behind dark glasses, devote myself to the study of some serious and abstract branch of learning.” We reject our impulses by acting hysterically, or changing our lifestyles and habits to mimic what is “normal”. We think our internalizations are too irrational to exist. Inside of Elio are different voices conflicting with each other. Do I speak and risk everything? Or is it better to die and never face him? Desire renders you incredibly weak but observant. It engulfs you completely, and with so much pleasure, that you can only withstand so much before you collapse.
Now that you have spoken, your insides begin to reveal themselves to the other. Bodily fluids are contained for too long and suddenly, they are released in moments of extreme vulnerability.
Hours after Elio confesses to Oliver, the touch of Oliver’s foot under the dining table sets off Elio’s nosebleed. The internal becomes the external, and control is lost. What has been bottled up finally oozes out. Embarrassed, Elio retreats to a dark corner with an ice cube at his nose. His body has given too much away. The two sit closely in this small but enormous space. Their tendril-like limbs interlace, and Oliver kisses Elio’s foot. The silence could not be more suggestive and embracing. Slowly, their bodies become warmly malleable—a mutual invitation to touch. Still, there is hesitation.
When we open ourselves up to someone through the physical act of sex or simply through confession, a layer of armour is stripped off. Our fantasies are validated. Silence is no longer oppressive. But, a part of you is numb because your imagination is now embracing reality. You become uneasy and unsure of yourself. What will they do with my desire? Sharing a love can capsize you, projecting you into the other with a promise of no return.
Does Elio want to be like Oliver? Does Elio want to be Oliver? Or, does Elio simply want to have him? In the twisted state of desire, there is little distinction between “being” and “having”. Once you touch what you desire, you fulfill your longing and in turn become what you want. At this stage, fear saturates desire. You may have received confirmation from the other that they feel the same, but there is too much to risk. Once you consume each other, you are exposed completely, and fully accept the parameters of desire.
Even if you have never experienced love, the feeling of desire is familiar and haunting.
These loves, whether or not they are actualized through words or some physical act, stick with us for the rest of our lives. The story of Elio and Oliver is a visceral experience that harks back to a love we don’t want to forget. So many return to this story - this world - because Elio and Oliver and Marzia and the Perlmans are versions of us and people we know. The film and book seduce us into lush, sensuous fiction that is safe and accepting of our most shameful of desires. It tells us that it is okay to meditate and churn over the most tempestuous of feelings, even when they don’t make sense to us. Call Me By Your Name celebrates desire and how it can mutate linear thinking into fantasy.
Barthes makes a beautiful analogy in his book about hiding ourselves: “My body is a stubborn child, my language is a very civilized adult...” At the dinner table we can appear poised with our thank you’s and after you’s but underneath, we are craving with agony inside. Elio succumbs to the most childish of behaviours the more and more he silences his desire. But I don’t think there’s anything shameful about it.
Let your body be stubborn. Feed into your intuition. Embrace your fiction. Call Me By Your Name tells us to clutch desire in its all consuming and paralyzing ways and never let go.
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