Call Me by Your Name is a film as much about education as it is about ignorance, one with as much disorder as there is order. Never is it 1. Ignorance, then 2. Education; those lines consistently blur between what Elio doesn’t know and how Oliver teaches him. That in and of itself serves to explain why this relationship infuriates plenty – its borderline toxicity and manipulative tendencies don’t help to counteract the significant age difference between the participants – but entices plenty more. Aciman once said of his characters, and relationships like this one, “You do need a relationship in which one has all the experience with life, and the other is just beginning to discover what life is.”
Standing outside of the gates that surround the statue commemorating the Battle of Piave – you remember it; so does Elio – Oliver glances over to Elio with a smile, one that suggests he’s stunned. “Is there anything you don’t know?” he asks, both glib and genuinely curious. Elio has listed off fact upon fact as though he’d written the plaque below the statue or fought in the war himself.
And yet… “I know nothing, Oliver.”
“Well, you seem to know more than anyone else around here.”
“Well, if only you knew how little I know about the things that matter.”
“What ‘things that matter’?”
“You know what things.”
They both know what things to which Elio refers. But without Elio’s ignorance to what they might mean, or to how they might make him feel, the narrative would be rendered adrift – or worse, unremarkable. Romantic films in which there is a redeemed conquest are the films that have the most fans. The ones that follow an already-dating or married couple through hardship, whether comedic or depressing, are the films you’ve seen before but love. It’s the films that combine the two that can cause your chest to warm and your eyes to well up as you revel in its beauty. Beauty that is remarkable, grueling, deified, fleeting.
For it is often the most beautiful stories in which the things that matter die before they can ever really begin to take form.
Some few months from the summer when Oliver arrived somewhere in northern Italy have passed. It’s snowing now. Mafalda is lighting the candles along the menorah. It’s Hanukkah, clearly. If the snow and candles weren’t a dead giveaway, how about the latkes she’s plating? Elio strolls into the house, snow on the shoulders of his jacket and beginning to disappear from his curly brown hair as the indoor heat comes into contact with each flake. He keeps his headphones draped over his ears – likely a CD restoration of Chopin’s Etude in E Major – but hears the phone ringing and tracks it down. “Pronto,” he says; Italians refrain from using “ciao” when answering the phone, instead offering “pronto,” that they are ready to speak.
He hears a familiar voice on the other end.
The film is soon to end, and will do so on what is now an often-teased long take of Chalamet’s Elio kneeling in front of a crackling fire, considering his memories, losing a few tears in the process. But it’s what comes just before this special cinematographic moment that is perhaps the film’s most dispiriting and telling moment. Elio, on the phone with Oliver, that familiar voice seating him in near-exasperation into a nearby chair, learns that Oliver is getting married. The Perlmans hop on the line in the office, learn the news themselves, and cheerfully wish him well in his matrimony. They hang up to give Elio and Oliver some privacy. They know about the two of them, after all. While the cat never shot out of the bag, after it plodded towards its exit, it grabbed the bag in its teeth and took off.
Elio and Oliver, now alone, call one another by their names one final time. Elio says it with confidence. You’re sure he means it. Oliver says it, though it’s preceded by a heavily exhale, almost like the ones that emanated from his slumber the day he and Elio first met. His reciprocation almost sounds like it was done as his head finished swiveling, making sure no one was around.
Brief silence. Hesitance and hot breath sit within the receiver’s speaker.
Oliver speaks one last time. “I remember everything.”
And then, before the fireplace, he cries.
Oliver remembers everything because he charted every bit of their love story’s course. It evolved on his terms. It began on his terms. It was consummated, with consent, on his initial terms. He pumped Elio with anxiety and lust, manipulated his sexual desires and preferences, and twisted his motivations. All on his terms, all the while maintaining Elio’s existence as a vessel for the emotions he did feel, and the channel through which an audience is meant to feel.
Elio remembers everything, but his version of everything has either been validated or clouded by the conversation on the phone. Sure, now he knows that Oliver remembers everything, and the memories remain, but are they now in vain? Or was the very purpose for the love felt during the summer of 1983 for Oliver to learn how to claim love again? He mentions that his fiancée was an on-again off-again relationship; perhaps Elio was what Oliver needed in order to learn how to keep things on.
In his final moments on screen – an ingenious stretch of performance art by Chalamet – Elio looks directly forward, out at the audience. His eyes having turned pink, the bags under them lined with teardrops, it’s almost as if he’s offering a signal. It might mean that he knows we know what he’s going through. It might be a regretful “I should have seen this coming,” as it pertains to what he feels is a sort of emotional betrayal by Oliver. I like to think of it as an affirmation; “I’m broken, but I’ll be okay,” his eyes tell me. To me, he’s telling us that he knows he’ll be okay someday. That it hurts right now, but someday, he, too, will be getting married. Successful, happy, and truly in love.
In that moment, I imagine that Elio finally knows everything he ever wanted to know.