I have seen Call Me By Your Name (2017) exactly 11 times in the last 16 days. Probably even more by the time you read this. I cry in every viewing, hoping the next would be less painful than the last. But it doesn’t really end, the stream of tears. I’d have to stop the player in the middle of Timothée Chalamet’s final performance as he sits grief-stricken in front of a fireplace. The pain is heavy, the pain is familiar.
Call Me By Your Name (2017) is a love story. An older, wiser American man named Oliver (Armie Hammer) travels to Northern Italy for a dissertation residency with a kind, almost saintly professor (Michael Stuhlbarg). Oliver meets the professor’s 17-year-old son, Elio, and forms a special friendship with him before it slowly molds into a relationship of intellectual stimulation, sexual attraction, and love.
The film opened up some old, long healed wounds from more than five years ago. The same reason I could never finish Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) without swimming in my snot, Call Me By Your Name (2017) is not just a love story about two men. It’s a kind of truth. A painful one at that.
Mr. Perlman: Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot.
I was 16 and she was 26. I was in my senior year of high school, a little lost and a little hopeful. She, on the other hand, wasone of the school’s best literature teachers and my drama club moderator. And I’m not kidding when I say every girl in that school adored her (some, funnily enough, even bordered on obsession).
I didn’t think much about who she was. Yes, I admired her eloquence, her intelligence, her bright smile, and her talent in theater arts. But that was about it. I did not see her the way other girls did, as if she was an eagle in the clouds, an untouchable goddess. I just saw her as her. I knew underneath that powerful and confident front she put up every day for her students, she was just as lost as I was. And she knew I knew that. Maybe that’s how we became friends.
- Oliver: I like the way you say things. I don’t know why you’re always putting yourself down, though.
- Elio: So you won’t, I guess.
She was one of the reasons I started taking writing seriously. Her immense belief in me pushed me to read things, to learn things, to create things. We would talk for hours on the phone, discussing the likes of Botticelli and Magritte while sharing songs from Jobim and Santana. We would talk about the films we loved, the films we hated. We memorized poems and recited them to each other. The more I talked to her, the more I wanted to know everything. About her, about the world.
One night, she told me that if there was a boy version of me, she would date him. And I just thought it was funny. Because why did she need a boy version of me to date me? The conversation led to us professing our feelings for each other and, before you know it, we were in love.
She was the first person I ever imagined spending an eternity with. At that time, it seemed sane enough. We had our own version of Northern Italy and nothing mattered but the love we had. Of course, the unconventionalities eventually made it difficult. We were both women, she was much older, she was my former teacher, we were from Catholic schools, we lived in an unaccepting society, and we were born into unaccepting families. It became an us-vs.-the-world kind of love, and forever was beginning to make less sense.
It was the summer before university started for me and we were on the phone at 2 in the morning. She knew months before that I was going to take Literature for college. She told me she was afraid I would outgrow her, the same way her old students did. That I would know more things, I would study more. And it would eventually lead me to outgrow the love we had. I thought it was ridiculous. I told her it would never happen, that I would love her forever. How could she think such a thing?
“Cinema is a mirror of reality and it is a filter.”
But the poison ate at our relationship from within. I remember when she told me she wanted to put up her own bakery where she could sell her own freshly baked pan de sal. Selfishly, I responded with: “You can’t just say you want to do things and not do anything about it.” I thought it stemmed from envy, that maybe I wanted to do something as grand as that. But no. It was fear. The moment she would talk about making plans for her future that obviously did not include me in the picture, I would be crippled with fear. And I would lash back at her. Only years later did I realize that I said those things not because I was overly competitive or jealous of her ambitions. It was because I didn’t want to lose her.
The funny thing is, the more I didn’t want to lose her, the more I tried to wriggle myself out of her grasp. I was fading, slowly. It would hurt less this way, I used to tell myself. I would push and pull and push and pull, tiring her out endlessly. The last pull, I didn’t come back. And after that, she would no longer let me in, even if I tried.
- Mr. Perlman: You two had a nice friendship.
- Elio: Yeah…
- Mr. Perlman: You’re too smart not to know how rare, how special, what you two had was.
- Elio: Oliver was Oliver.
- Mr. Perlman: Parce-que c’etait lui, parce-que c’etait moi.
- Elio: Oliver may be very intelligent but…
- Mr. Perlman: Ah… he was more than intelligent. What you two had, had everything and nothing to do with intelligence. He was good, and you were both lucky to have found each other, because… you too are good.
- Elio: I think he was better than me, I think he was better than me.
- Mr. Perlman: I’m sure he’d say the same thing about you, which flatters you both.
It’s been more than almost half a decade since we’ve last spoken to each other. She’s now happily married with a baby coming soon, and I have been in-love with the same man for almost four years. But I still think about her. Not with the same kind of love I had, but with a tenderness that won’t ever go away.
Will I ever stop crying while watching Call Me By Your Name? Maybe, maybe not. But pain is a child of memory. And maybe the reason I still cry is that the pain was real. That only just means the love was, too.
Mr. Perlman: Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it and with it the joy you’ve felt.
I still think about you, B. I wonder how you are, what songs you listen to, what books you’re reading. I want to know if your heart is happy. I want to feel the kick of your baby’s feet against the walls of your stomach. I want to see you again, even if it’s just five minutes, a few seconds, or a blink. If not, if I don’t ever get to have that chance again in this lifetime, then I just pray you are well, always. I hope you’re doing fine. I’m sorry for the lies, for the anger, and for all the pain I have caused you. Thank you for everything.