Elio’s Education

By D. A. MillerFebruary 19, 2018

Elio’s Education
THROUGHOUT THE EXASPERATING TRADITION begun by Maurice (1987) and continued with Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Moonlight (2016), the mainstream gay-themed movie (or MGM) has pursued three consistent objectives. First, to elicit sympathy for gay male love in its struggle to affirm itself under the barbaric repressions of the closet. Second, to limit the visibility of gay male sex, whose depiction is scrupulously kept from approaching the explicitness reserved for hetero-consummations (which the MGM by no means dispenses with: the gay protagonists regularly pass through the bisexual antechamber). The synergy between these aims hardly needs to be stated. Only by averting our eyes from the distinctive gay male sex act can we defend a man’s freedom to perform it; in the classically abstract liberal way, all is approved of on condition that nothing be looked at.

More interesting is the MGM’s third objective: to be a thing of beauty — beauty so overpowering, or overdone, that (provided the other objectives are met) it persuades viewers they are watching a masterpiece, “gay sex or not.” This mandatory aesthetic laminate, which can never shine brightly enough with dappled light to win critical accolades, is a curious phenomenon. Other mainstream cinema with a liberal agenda can be less careful about its appearance — good intentions are felt to count for a lot. But “breathtaking” beauty is as essential a requirement of the MGM as a quick shot of a man’s crotch. Not that these are at all the same things. The ballyhooed beauty never refers to the onscreen male bodies or to the film’s strategies for eroticizing them; it’s what we are asked to look at instead.

No surprise, then, that Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, the MGM’s latest exemplar, has been praised, as rotely as if the phrase had its own keyboard command, for being “beautifully shot.” Or that this means, among other things, for not having shot the gay sex scene that it’s spent well over an hour making everyone anticipate, a scene that might have taken our breath away for real. Just what is being “beautifully shot”? When Guadagnino’s lovers finally get around to doing it, the camera modestly pans away to contemplate, not for the first time, the lovely orchard outside. The photogenic backdrop is typical of the MGM, be it the Wyoming mountains or Trinity Great Court, a moonlit Miami beach or the Palazzo del Commune in Crema, Italy. The beauty of this beauty is that it gets us outdoors, to a scene that, because no more than scenery, is not homosexual.

Yet Call Me by Your Name takes the MGM’s beauty requirement radically farther than its predecessors. Here, the sporadic bella vista serves to promote the sustained loveliness of an ethos, of a whole Beautiful Life. The story unfolds one summer at the Perlman family villa “somewhere in Northern Italy,” an Arcadia where we get to realize the dearest dream of every tourist: not being one. Here no migrants or sightseeing buses disturb our casual — yet deeply rooted — intimacy with the resplendent plains, lakes, and mountains. Our daily round takes us past charming old buildings and squares, for which we never need a guidebook because we’ve never not known them. We dine all’aperto, in an orchard, washing down the homemade tortelli and fresh-caught fish with frizzante, and finishing up with an espresso — these Italian words being perhaps more flavorful than the dishes themselves. And because we too are indigenous, the old men playing scopa cut us in, and the peasant woman stops shelling beans to fetch us water; the picturesque is literally at our service.

There is more and better: the good things of life coexist here in perfect harmony with the finer things, the world of the mind and the arts. The Perlmans are possessed of these things, too, in almost parodic profusion: from the father, Samuel, who is a university professor of Greco-Roman antiquity, to the mother, Annella, a multi-lingual translator, down to the 17-year-old son, Elio, a musical prodigy. They are joined by Oliver, a post-doc preparing a manuscript on Heraclitus and Heidegger! More astonishing than the Sontagesque range of high culture on display is the exquisite facility with which the family commands it; the acquirements are so natural, or naturalized, that that they show no sign of having had to be acquired. “Darling,” says Annella to her husband, in the tone a lesser woman would use for her sunglasses, “Have you seen my Heptaméron?” She finds a copy, but — how did that happen? it’s in German! No matter; she translates a tale on sight — even in the dark — for the entertainment of father and son. Young Elio, too, moves easily between languages, for no apparent reason but to demonstrate that he is as proficient in them as he is at the piano, an instrument he plays like a virtuoso without needing to practice. As for the professor, his unstudied scholarship glides through classical archeology, art history, philosophy, and philology alike. No arduous dig for this archeologist; his latest find has simply floated up from the bottom of the nearby lake. “What a beautiful place to work!” someone says to the creatively blocked director in 8 1/2. The irony of Fellini’s spa seems no more than the simple truth of Guadagnino’s villa. Except that in this locus amœnus, there is no work to do; stripped of drudgery and even effort, it has become play — Schiller’s aesthetic state stands achieved.

Yet in this aesthetic state, remarkably, nothing is pursued for aesthetic reasons alone. If the villa, with its statuary and frescoes, is a fitting abode for the Perlmans’ erudition, that erudition remains cozily domestic. However extreme, it never leaves the proximity of home for gratuitous pedantry or autonomous formalism; it’s as lived-in as the villa itself. Indeed, the more extravagant a reference appears, the more relevant it proves to the family drama of Elio’s crush on Oliver. The tale from Marguerite de Navarre, for instance, spurs the boy to tell his beloved everything; his mother has probably chosen it for that reason; and certainly, Elio has only to allude to its tongue-tied hero for Oliver, equally familiar with the story, to bring the conversation to the point. Similarly, when juice, pressed from the orchard fruit, becomes the occasion for Oliver’s jaw-dropping etymology of the word “apricot” (from the Latin praecox, or early-ripening), the intellectual display hangs in the air as a misty, soon-to-be condensed, allusion to Elio’s precocious and fruity cock. In his later sex play with a peach, Elio himself takes this subtext out from between the lines. The art/life interfacing culminates when the professor calls Oliver’s attention to the “ageless ambiguity” of Hellenistic male nude bronzes: it’s as if, he says, “they’re daring us to desire them” — and as if Praxiteles himself has come to bless the age-blind homosexual desires harbored by Elio, Oliver, and (as we will later discover obliquely) the professor himself.

Though the film is said to take place in the early 1980s, it more truly unfolds in that mythic time when, as Georg Lukács famously put it, “the starry sky is the map of all possible paths,” and life, radiantly authentic, is identical to its meaning. The Perlmans’ mesh of self-reference holds their milieu so tightly together that nothing ever goes to waste, or does not belong. Such organic unity suggests that their Beautiful Life is the naïve form of a work of art — in other words, the embryonic form of this very film. Grounded in that life, but raising it up to artistic self-consciousness, the film points to itself as the Beautiful Life’s last and finest flower. Guadagnino took pains to show himself as at home in this narrative world in the most literal fashion, moving the action from the Liguria of André Aciman’s source novel to Lombardy, where he lives, and furnishing the villa with objects from his apartment in Crema. Even at this level, Elio’s world has been subsumed in Guadagnino’s artistic identity as its mouthpiece. “I’ll call you by my name” indeed!


The Beautiful Life admits homosexuality in three manifestations. As the ancient Boy of the “beautiful” and “sensual” bronzes, of course, homosexuality wins Professor Perlman’s unreserved enthusiasm. In the avatar of the modern Gay, however, represented by an older male couple who come to the villa for dinner, it is the object of more equivocal mere tolerance. The Perlmans all find Isaac and Mounir a bit absurd; their dandified matching outfits are as embarrassing as the shirt, of a kind formerly euphemized as “festive,” that they’ve sent Elio from Miami. The beauty lies not with these gays but rather in the family’s acceptance of them even so — which is why Elio must wear the hairshirt to dinner. His father explains to him: “You’re too old not to accept people for who they are. What’s wrong with them? […] Is it because they’re gay or because they’re ridiculous?” But since they’re obviously both, the message ends up mixed, as messages of tolerance typically do: these silly queens just happen to be gay.

But the third and most memorable way the Beautiful Life welcomes homosexuality is in the parents’ diligent incubation of the sexual relation between Elio and Oliver. Quickly and quietly, these watchful parents grasp their teenage son’s desire for a grown man, and they do something cleverer than fighting or condoning it, behaviors that would just bench them. Instead, they superintend its consummation, so that they will never not be in the know and everything will remain in the family. Having privately ascertained from Oliver that he “likes” Elio, Annella shares the encouraging information with her son. Samuel, for his part, emboldens Oliver with his praise of the desire-baiting bronzes. Together, they even organize an unchaperoned sleepover for the boys in Bergamo. Mother and father behave beautifully, some might say — and the father pretty much does say, when he is alone with Elio after Oliver’s departure. “In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away […] but I am not such a parent.” This smugness comes in the middle of a long, Hollywoodly-wise speech in which, with a mighty twinkle of the magisterial eye, the professor proposes to explain Elio’s experience to him.

The speech is a bona fide head trip, but let me be clear: what’s repulsive about it is not that it expresses sympathy for Elio’s gay desire or its being acted out with a grown man. Give Sammy and Annella this: most parents in their place would be too busy worrying about an older man “preying” on their son to recognize the fact that their Tadzio might be the one cruising him. No, the speech is repulsive in the root sense: it seeks to drive away every possible understanding that might make the relation with Oliver a serious sexual experience for Elio — and thus also make it that significant social experience we call “coming of age.” The father’s knowingness (capped with this masterful finishing touch: “Have I spoken out of turn?”) leaves no breathing room for the son’s self-knowledge.

It is worth pointing out a few of the avenues that this smother-father blocks. One, quite simply, is the possibility that the encounter with Oliver might clarify Elio’s sexual orientation, that (like the queens his liberal parents can’t help mocking) the boy might be gay. A second, consequent possibility is that something besides misery and bad shirts (an original relation to life? some hot guys?) might intervene between the teenager’s broken heart and the moment of future suicidal despair evoked by his father, where “no one looks at [your body] much less wants to come near it”! Of whose superannuated body can this merely middle-aged man, who still enjoys the occasional PDA with his wife, be speaking? But the problem with the paternal sagacity is less that it comes from a can than that it seems aimed at turning a 17-year-old gay boy into a closet case with one foot in the tomb.

This is why a third foreclosed possibility is most pertinent of all to this film: the chance that Elio’s sexual being might rupture the close-knit family circle, and with it, the roundedness of the Beautiful Life, which is the halo around that circle. These enlightened parents believe they can curate their son’s sexuality in the same way they must have chosen his piano master, or seen to his French lessons. So of course now, the father’s idea of loving care is to bury his son’s homosexual experience under his own beautiful idea of it. Like the closet case he admits to being, he does everything he can to embellish — and thereby desexualize — the relation with Oliver. “You two had a beautiful friendship,” he affirms, going on to lift a phrase I once wrote for a personal ad: “maybe more than a friendship.” A reference to Montaigne and La Boétie sets the high-cultural seal on this transfiguration of the sexual relation into an amicable relationship; and the father’s faux coming out — “something held me back or stood in the way” — is just more holding back. The vaguely gestured-at “something” that blocked his own homosexuality remains standing behind his beauty treatment of Elio’s.


The film’s own manner of holding back will suggest what the trouble is. The camera’s demure retreat from the sex act, almost comic in its old-school Hollywood decorum, is all the more striking in a film that gives us so much uninhibited man-on-man kissing. Guadagnino has offered a couple of rationales for his reticence. At the New York Film Festival, he has claimed that “to put our gaze upon [the gay] lovemaking would have been a sort of unkind intrusion.” In another Q-and-A, he advances the contrary suggestion that it is not the gay lovers who require protection from our gaze, but we who need to be screened from something we might see in them:

I didn’t want the audience to find any difference or discrimination toward these characters. It was important to me to create this powerful universality, because the whole idea of the movie is that the other person makes you beautiful — enlightens you, elevates you. The other is often confronted with rejection, fear, or a sense of dread, but the welcoming of the other is a fantastic thing to do, particularly in this historical moment.

The incoherence of all this sanctimony is dazzling. To gaze on love-making had been perfectly acceptable when Elio lost his (heterosexual) virginity with Marzia; to speak now of an “unkind intrusion” is inevitably — and tellingly — to confuse the act of seeing with the act that is not being seen: the wrong kind of fuck. And it’s anyone’s guess how preventing people from “find[ing] any difference” in the homo coupling might facilitate their “welcoming of the other,” since it is precisely the other’s Otherness that has been left out. In any case, who is welcoming whom? Are we welcoming Elio and Oliver or are they welcoming one another? And are these welcomes of the same kind?

No doubt, I’m overthinking remarks better understood as fashionable repressions. While his camera is flying out the bedroom window, Guadagnino finds it helpful, à la Peter Pan, to think wonderful thoughts. But make no mistake: his enthusiasm for welcoming the Other, like the professor’s appreciation of friendship, is far more homophobic than any simple elision of gay sex. That, after all, has the advantage of leaving everything to the pornographic imagination. By contrast, the beautification campaign in and around Call Me by Your Name runs gay sex through such grandiose sentimental misrecognitions that we would no longer know it even if we did see it. Only in the neo-closetiness of present-day sexual liberalism could “the welcoming of the Other” be anything but a very funny bowdlerization of what Elio does with Oliver in bed.

Even the film’s discreet connotative codes are more precise, and everyone who hasn’t willfully ignored them knows exactly what it would be unkind to show or off-putting to see here: the unlovely spectacle of blood, shit, and pain that is the initiation of Elio’s desiring asshole. Such a spectacle is not likely to be a fantastic confirmation of our humanity at this or any other historical moment. Montaigne, as the professor might have remembered, extolled his beautiful friendship and condemned “Greek license” in the same essay. And though this initiation has been the object of Elio’s keenest desire, his post-coital mood swings do not suggest that he unambiguously enjoyed it. Certainly, he gives no evidence of the ecstatic discovery of the same-sex body. This sexually unforthcoming film is, of course, politic enough to assure us that the sexual relation, desired by Elio and sanctioned by his parents, was not of a nature to get Oliver “in any trouble.” But the fact that Elio was not abused or harassed has not kept him from experiencing the awkward, unhomely, compelled self-dispossession inherent in sex itself. It is this negativity of sex — epitomized, of course, in felt ugliness of the via rettale — that revolts both the Beautiful Life and the beautiful film that speaks in its name.

Oliver and Elio: an artful inversion

It is an irreconcilable difference. Even when the homosexual lovers have done their thing, and the camera finds it safe to return to the bedroom, it offers us an arty close-up of their faces upside down. It is as if Guadagnino wanted to make up for the invisibility of the prohibitively “different” gay sex by this eye-catching show of post-coital ordinariness. And indeed, attention must be paid, for it is during this distracting shot that Oliver makes Elio the proposition that gives his and Elio’s love its leitmotif and the film its title: “Call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine.” Elio accepts — the names are already near-palindromic — and together they coo an enraptured duet of soul-mating, in which the many obvious differences between them are at once acknowledged and abolished. Under the spell of equivalence, Elio moves his head to the other side of Oliver’s so as to give the verbal exchange of names a visual counterpart. And yet, even at the call-me fantasy’s core articulation, tiny flaws throw off the symmetry: Elio calls Oliver “Elio” three times, but Oliver only manages to call Elio “Oliver” twice before the shot cuts off, with a bit of Oliver’s own brusqueness, leaving Elio’s crossover incomplete as well. It starts to seem as if the fantasy’s appeal (for both parties) consists in fantasizing over what would otherwise appear as a painful one-sidedness in the relation.

And now the shot’s upside-downness makes a kind of sense, as we absorb the affinity between the horizontally reversed image attempted by Elio within the shot and the vertically reversed image that is the shot itself. Guadagnino’s image seems bent on performing a similarly wishful affirmation of parity against the obscene (off-screen) dissymmetry of phallic top and anal bottom. But what Aciman’s novel calls “the fungibility, of […] bodies” can occur here only in a topsy-turvy world in which the protagonists’ pillow-talking heads appear to lie below their waists, and thus to be replacing those nether parts whose own manner of intercourse has not enjoyed the same mutuality. Guilt-ridden Oliver will do almost anything to make amends to Elio for fucking him — sup his semen, kiss his mouth after he’s vomited — anything except let him take a turn topping. And abjected Elio, too, has his own imaginary way of righting matters. As he intrudes his cock between the halves of another kind of stone-fruit, the film’s metaphorics let us understand, even without benefit of the Emojipedia, that fucking the full-grown peach is the reparative counteraction of having been plucked as a precocious apricot.

Whenever the film, or anyone in the film, confronts the negative in sex, the call-me fantasy surfaces as consolation. Oliver’s “billowy blue shirt,” as the novel calls it, puts the pattern in a nutshell. This is the upper-body garment, not to say top, that the self-assured American wears on his arrival at the villa. But it later serves as the wipe used by Oliver and Elio to clean themselves after sex. (Nervous Elio: “Mafalda always looks for signs”; confident Oliver, wiping away, “Well, she’s not gonna find any.”) The soiled shirt speaks gay sex more loudly than anything in this whisper of a film ever does, and the camera lingers over it lying crumpled on the bedroom floor. To a too-close viewer, the smutty shirtwipe seems to bear all the signs that it has been used to keep the snoopy housekeeper from finding; as Guy Hocquenghem has aphorized, “A dick always brings back some shit.”

Evidence nearly inadmissible

But having allowed us to glimpse, or imagine, as much, the shot, in a variation on the earlier pan out the window, dissolves to the image of a beautiful lake at dawn. We recognize, of course, the conventional use of a dissolve to convey the passage of time; but the overlap more pertinently suggests that Guadagnino couldn’t wait to put the dirty shirt in the wash. Has ever a dissolve been used more literal-mindedly: to do a solvent’s work of removing stubborn stains? But, in a sense, the deep-cleaning had already begun when, having just tossed the actual wipe to the floor, Elio asked Oliver for the remembered top as a keepsake. Oliver will oblige, of course, and after the shirt has been properly laundered, Elio finds it on his bed accompanied by a note that launders it yet again: “For Oliver, from Elio.”


I liked this movie so little that I broke my longstanding habit of sitting through the end credits; I left as soon as the words “Call Me by Your Name” appeared in the shot of Elio tearfully looking into the fire. But when (for purposes of this review) I saw the film a second time, I understood that, by leaving when I did, I had cut myself out of the best shot in the film, a shot so good that it caused me to wonder whether, in reading the film against its grain, I had in fact been faithful to a complexity in Guadagnino’s intentions. With the credits rolling over it and spectators checking their phones, the shot was destined to be a throwaway, but that, I belatedly realized, was its ethical dare to us not to overlook what wasn’t crying out for attention. The shot had been lost to me initially; what could I find in it the second time around?

Call Me’s summer romance has a winter coda; the family has returned to the villa for Hanukkah. The postcard-perfect snowfall only enhances the holiday warmth inside: latkes a-making, a fire in the hearth, the table shimmering in candlelight. All of a sudden, Oliver calls and Elio picks up. “I have some news”: he’s getting married. “You never said anything.” “It’s been off and on for two years.” The pain is submerged — or converted into pain of another sort — by the booming jubilation with which, breaking in on the extension, the parents wish Oliver joy: “Wonderful! Congratulations! Mazel tov!” At harmonizing thrilled surprise with gratified foreknowledge (for in conjugal culture, we do foresee these things), Sammy and Annella could not be better if they tried. But they’re not trying; the point is that they’re naturals. No matter how far their liberal conscience has taken them, their unconscious will always side with the marrying kind. They are hard-wired partisans of positive, publicizable sex, the sex whose “signs” need never be hidden from the housekeeper, the once and future nanny of such signs. The fact that the conjugal imperative seems to command a deeper, more automatic attachment than he does cannot get easier for Elio to swallow when Oliver, back to one-on-one, remarks that the professor is treating him like one of the family, “almost a son-in-law.” If only he had a dad like that — Elio is so lucky! Predictably, Elio tries to resume the your-name game, but he’s playing alone. Oliver echoes him only once, then tersely relegates the habit to the past: “I remember everything.”

Elio’s devastation at this moment comes from what we can think of as the social enforcement of his sexual abjection: having been fucked, he is now being fucked over by the deep norms of a world where marriage sweeps all before it. No explanation is required for why his lover has retreated into a heterosexual engagement without “saying anything”; or for why his parents have applauded the retreat as a return to fundamental form; or for why his father has found a son-in-law (read, a son who will carry on the patrilineage) in the man Elio presciently called “the usurper.” In the general engulfment, even the solicitude of which Elio has been the pampered recipient must give way to indifference.

To render the boy’s sudden extreme isolation — the near-absoluteness of his nonrecognition — Guadagnino shoots him crouched near the hearth, looking into the fire, and crying. It’s a very different shot from the ones that, by contrast, it must recall for us: crybaby Elio with his mother, his father, Oliver. This time, the boy takes care that no one see his tears because what they lament is his newfound, unsought identity as someone no one can see. He looks “into” the fire, at nothing but an inwardness that he can no longer imagine finding expression in the blur of the Beautiful Life behind him. (Could he really explain to the parties concerned how completely the spontaneous bond they have formed around heterosexual marriage, and the right kind of sex, has annihilated him?)

The strength of the shot lies precisely in its uncomfortable prolongation, its stubborn dwelling on Elio as he would grieve his social death, while the credits rush him along like a quick-and-cheap funeral service. The exhaustively inclusive roll call of names seems to intensify his loss of both a name and a sense of belonging, almost as if he knew they were sharing the screen. The infinitesimal nuance that Timothée Chalamet, the virtuoso actor who plays Elio, keeps bringing to the boy’s expression suggests that the shades of privation are infinite, that the shot, in this respect, might be as interminable as end credits always feel. Annella of course is the first to summon her son back to the Beautiful Life: “Elio?” Mechanically — it’s a familiar drill — he starts to turn his head toward her, but he pauses to wipe his eyes on his shirt before answering the call. For these are, effectively, the last tears of his youth; it is with “wash’d eyes” — in Cordelia’s sense of a cleared-up vision — that he will take his place at the dinner table. There, the film lets us suppose, the only thing that will diminish his enjoyment of the comfort foods on offer is the knowledge that he has just become, in every important sense, a ghost. And that knowledge, this more-than-exasperating film also lets us suppose, is what gay coming of age — so different from gay coming out — still amounts to.


D. A. Miller is Professor of the Graduate School at the University of California, Berkeley. His recent books include Hidden Hitchcock, 8 1/2, and Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style. In 2013, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

LARB Contributor

D. A. Miller, for many years John F. Hotchkis Professor at the University of California, has most recently been visiting professor at the University of Tokyo. His books include Hidden Hitchcock; Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style; and the forthcoming Second Time Around: From Art House to DVD.


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