When one finishes watching Call Me by Your Name (Guadagnino, 2017), the image that is stuck with them is the main character Elio, crying in front of a fireplace as the credits roll and Sufjan
Steven's song plays out. This is not surprising since it is the last image of the movie and it is stuck there for a long time. Naturally we are likely to remember it the most. What is interesting is why this is chosen as the image that the movie wanted to leave us with in this particular way. There may be several implications for this choice and in this essay I will go through it from the realist movie perspective by dissecting the nature of the long take and its placement within the movie. After that, I will talk about the scene with its archetypal implications with mythic theories and will try to understand why the movie specifically wanted this image to be representative of the film.
Call Me by Your Name is a movie about 17 years old Elio spending his summer in their family home somewhere on coastal Italy. When Oliver, a research assistant for his father’s academic work, arrives, Elio begins to discover his sexuality as his desires start to revolve around Oliver’s presence. The story is thoroughly constructed as a classic “summer love” story. From the beginning of the movie, the viewer is informed that Oliver would stay for 6 weeks and then would return to the United States. Even with the ever growing sense of love between the characters the movie never fools its audience about the mortality of this relationship. So when at the end Oliver finally returns to his homeland, leaving Elio after a few weeks of romance, it does not come as a surprise. The movie, for the most part, plays out like it has promised to play out since the moment it began.
Towards the end, however, it takes a slightly different turn. After Oliver’s departure, the movie just does not seem to end. First we see the heart-broken Elio being comforted by his father about the heartbreak he is going through, which does not exactly come as a shock given the solid characterization of the father figure throughout the film yet it is not exactly a common trope in LGBTQ+ movies either. It is not usual for the father to be supportive, especially considering that the movie takes place in the 80s. This could make a good ending but the movie lingers on and seasons change, snow falls, and fire crackling in the hearth is heard. At some point in the movie, Elio has told Oliver that they only come to that particular house in the summers and occasionally on Hanukkah. That line of dialogue comes into play and we see Elio and his family preparing dinner for Hanukkah months later. A phone call is answered and Elio and Oliver connect again through the wire. Oliver tells Elio that he is getting married. A beat. Elio congratulates him. Mazeltov. Family joins in on the line, farewells are said, and Elio puts down the phone, now twice heartbroken. As the family continues to prepare dinner, Elio sits by the fireplace. With the red flickering light of the hearth, he cries silently and credits appear on the screen by his side. This scene goes on for several minutes until all people are credited.
To begin to understand this scene, we have to take interest in the nature of the long-take. John David Rhodes says that, “The long take, in Andre Bazin's famous terms, performs a variety of labors, among them this one: a forcing of spectators to assume a more active role in interpreting the representation of reality before them.” (Rhodes, 2006). If we were to think like that, we would have to assume that the audience has to interpret the representation of reality. This becomes funny because acknowledging the representation of reality before us also makes as acknowledge that, no matter how well it is represented (well as in accurate), it is just a representation and not a part of the reality itself. In this line of thinking, the long take would have to force the audience to realize the filmmaking and break the illusion in a way. It makes sense since in most disembodiment cases, a long take would have to force the audience to break that disembodiment and make them realize their own bodily functions within the movie theatre (Bordwell, 1996).
Yet when we apply this convention to Call Me by Your Name, it seems weird, because if there is one thing that enables the audience to acknowledge their position as viewers more than a long take, it would have to be the writings on the screen. Even in realist term, if the image is supposed to be the perfect representation of the world, nothing would disturb that image more than having letters on it. And in the movie, as the credits play out, thousands of letters appear consecutively. Not only that but in a more practical sense; it is the credits scene. In theatre, most audience is supposed to walk out. It is their cue. Lights are supposed to be on.
Yet as I have watched this movie in theatre, lights did not turn on. The movie continues playing in its darkness. Some people did start leaving but a very insignificant minority. The majority of the theatre was either bawling their red eyes on the screen as if to mirror those of Elio’s, or just were confused and looked around or at their phone aimlessly.
I find this interesting because there is an inherent juxtaposition. If this was any other scene, it would be alright. A lot of movies have footages playing next to credits. Some even have fourth wall breaking acknowledgement of characters such as the entire cast rapping about their characters in Everybody Wants Some!! (Linklater, 2016). What Call Me by Your Name does differently is using this at the emotional peak of the movie. For a movie to get under our skin and affect us emotionally, not in a melodramatic “let’s make those people cry” way but really make us feel for characters, we have to get into the story and lose our presence in the theatre. We have to go through what the main character is going through so that when they are affected, we are also affected. Now if Elio crying in front of the fireplace is supposed to make us cry as well, it works. Because we are in the movie magic and we can relate to his aching heart. We are completely absorbed by the actor’s flowing emotions of the actor. He is not an actor but the character in our eyes. Yet when the actual name of the actor appears just next to the character, it does something strange to our perception of it.
Edward Hudlin references Kracauer saying that, “The camera is analogous to a mirror which reflects the visible appearances of nature as they present themselves to the naive vision of the spectator - except that the camera is a "mirror with a memory" that preserves the images it reflects […]” (Hudlin, 1980). I believe this understanding of the camera is integral to the understanding of this scene in the movie. As he believes the camera to fulfill a few metaphorical tasks, some of them are quite literal in a viewing of Call Me by Your Name. For starters, it really does mirror the reality. When Elio cries, audience is expected to cry since it is the point where the emotional momentum from the unexpected phone call takes us to. As with any love and heartbreak story, audience is also expected to find themselves a little in the characters so this literal mimicry makes sense. With that in mind, if the acknowledgement of the fact that an actor is acting a character by the movie does break the illusion, it should not necessarily matter since the audience would also assume the actor to be just like them and could empathize with the character they are playing. So the tears would not necessarily be fake like credit-rap in Everybody Wants Some!!, they would be representations of real tears. Even though this would be an intellectual inference on the part of the audience rather than an emotional or cognitive one, it would still be a valid reading. And if it was to be true then the phrase “mirror with a memory” would make even more sense since like I have said in the beginning, this is the scene that the spectator is left with as the movie ends and it is that image that lingers on in the heads with every single detail staying sharp.
As Hudlin also states “One of the unique functions of the cinema, then, is this preservation and enhancement of ephemeral detail.” (Hudlin, 1980). So the movie, from a realist point of view, does best with what it aspires to do the most: it preserves the image it reflects and not just on the screen but on the minds of its spectators, perhaps never to be taken away.
Why it chooses to do so is a different matter of course and I will try to understand it from a more mythic approach. Just as Leah M. Wyman argues that genders are archetypically used, sexual orientations can be archetypically used as well, since she declares them as 'solidifying cultural presuppositions' (Wyman & Dionisopoulos, 1999). With that perspective, some prominent LGBTQ+ movies have an unfortunate common, which is their insistence on punishing their protagonists. Prominent movies such as Philadelphia (Demme, 1993), Hamam (Özpetek, 1997), Boys Don’t Cry (Peirce, 1999), Brokeback Mountain (Lee, 2005) and The Normal Heart (Kramer, 2014) are all LGBTQ+ movies with their main characters ending up dead. There are even more examples of those with heartbreaks and hardships. For obvious reasons, LGBTQ+ movies have always been about survival. Even in recent attempts where the outcome is less grim than usual, such as Moonlight (Jenkins, 2016), we still witness this struggle for survival. What I mean by obvious reasons is that LGBTQ+ people are still discriminated in real life. Therefore, arts representing them to have grim and desperate narratives are not surprising. This tendency to paint the real life struggles of such lives have turned into an archetypical concept of its own. As culturally dubbed “Bury Your Gays” is now a major trope that has to be fought against in media. Maybe not consciously, since some of the people working on these projects are LGBTQ+ themselves, but perhaps subconsciously these movies have a clear motive to punish their characters. It could be a realistic approach to shape these narratives in such ways but it is certainly not an idealistic view. Above all it mythicizes the lives of LGBTQ+ people as if all of them have to have desperate lives of struggle and heartbreaks. Over time, this mythification stemming from stereotypical archetypal uses affect LGBTQ+ people negatively and push them into unhealthy relationships that they would be better off not having.
Compared to these movies, Call Me by Your Name presents nothing short of a gay utopia. The protagonist, at 17 years old, lives out a yaoi (Japanese genre of fictional media such as manga, anime etc. that focuses on sexual relationships between two male character, one archetypically older and more masculine and one archetypically feminine, young and inexperienced) fantasy and manages to discover his sexual desires without external repressions with an older, experienced man. Even his heartbreak at the end is normalized with the ever apparent due-date of Oliver’s return home and he is comforted by his father with a touching speech for healing, which is something truly utopic in gay media. It would be one thing to go against archetypes in LGBTQ+ movies by having supportive parents, but it is outright unconventional to have a parent that reaches out to help no matter what the orientation is.
Yet we have to bear in mind that one word that I have used just now could be problematic. As I have said his heartbreak is normalized, what I also meant was that it was ‘straightened’. This gay story, at its heart, was presented as if it was a straight story. In fact this point has been the selling point of both the book and the movie. The original author of the book, André Aciman has said that he has not even touched a man before and lives his life as a heterosexual man with a family. The director of the movie, Luca Guadagnino is also self-described as heterosexual. As the representation comes into focus, both stars of the movie Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer are heterosexual, later one having children even. This reflects in the story even, both Oliver and Elio are not exclusively homosexual as Elio is shown having sex with a girl friend and Oliver getting married at the end. Yet the movie, and before that the book did so as well, attracts crowds from the LGBTQ+ community despite its inherent roots in heterosexual artists and representations. One thing I would argue about this is that it is the ‘straightening’ that’s appealing to the community. After struggling with many dead characters, it is no surprise that a significant portion of LGBTQ+ people want to break away from “Bury Your Gays” trope. Not only that, but for once people following the scene could actually be wanting to see a character succeed. They don’t want their main characters to be punished, not with eternal heartbreak and certainly not with death.
I would argue that this is why the ending scene is more important that we realize at first glance.
As Elio is heartbroken, so is the audience but since the father’s speech there is still a lingering thought that Elio could be fine. He will not have a sad life but a happy and fulfilled one, which is what any spectator could hope from the characters apart from a text that says “Happily Ever After”. The audience is stuck watching the credits play out because they want to see a clue about Elio’s fate. And as final credits are shown they do get an answer.
As Hudlin said previously, our attention is on the ephemeral detail and Elio’s slowly shining grin thus becomes a detail that is forever attached to our memories with him. In such way, as my previous points argue, the movie makes use of a realistic style, the long take, to break away from a mythic style of typifying its character’s fate.
Elio’s story may not be anything more than a gay fantasy. More universally, it may not be anything more than a classic summer love story. But for people who are able to see themselves in this character, from any gender, orientation or background in general, such fantasies have given them comfort rather than thrill. For many people, falling in love with the wrong person have been presented as something lethal, dangerous, and unforgiving even if they can reconcile with themselves. Even if everybody can reconcile with that fact, fate won’t and they will be punished in a tragic way. Now that the LGBTQ+ people are gaining more rights in the West and HIV is being controlled through education, it is also time that we try to see the full side of the glass where beautiful things also happen. In the end, what we may get from Elio’s story is that sometimes it ends good, sometimes it ends bad. If we were to take a step back from making such love stories mythically tragic, even if they are truly tragic we would still agree that they are the stories worth living and seeing.
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