Because I wanted you to know: Staging Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name
By Dag Sødtholt, Dec 21, 2018 19 min read
Luca Guadagnino‘s 2017 film Call Me by Your Name is not only a sensitive, visually beautiful film about falling in love, but a work of sophisticated mise-en-scène, interacting with a network of internal echoes and allusions.
This article will dissect its most masterful passage, the long-take piazza scene, then go on to the late hotel room scene, before revealing how windows are used as a motif throughout the film. That last chapter will also defend the from some quarters much-criticised camera movement away from the gay sex scene.
This is the second article about Call Me by Your Name on Montages. The first article examined its final scenes, drawing lines to earlier parts of the story to map out its path towards closure, of not only its characters but the film itself. There was also a summary of the film’s extensive historical-cultural backdrop. The third and final article highlights some of the film’s smaller moments, discusses the use of close-ups, track-in camera movements and dissolves, examines the pervasive use of fruit as a metaphor of sexual desire, and looks at other motifs, staging ideas, echoes and other structural properties. There is also an enclosure listing the film’s many long takes.
The following analysis takes the form of a written “commentary track”. A variety of film-analytical points will be made for each scene, revolving around an extensive use of screen shots. The article presupposes that the reader is familiar with the film. (A plot description can be found here.)
The piazza scene
This is the most epic scene in Call Me by Your Name, with its most sophisticated mise-en-scène, artful play on pauses and the unspoken, and inspired use of music. It is captured in one take, the film’s longest: 269 seconds, or 4 minutes 29 seconds. Elio longs to be with Oliver, but when they are together he is often frustrated, feeling upstaged and dominated by the more experienced and forceful Oliver. At this point in the film, however, Elio has become bolder and more assertive.
In the middle of the square there is a monument in memory of the Battle of the Piave River, in Elio’s words to Oliver, “one of the most lethal battles of World War I. Hundred and seventy thousand people died.” (Wrong, only about 20,000 died.) Elio and Oliver circle both the monument – on each their side, Oliver trying to keep some distance – and the subject of their mutual attraction, in a kind of dance of postures, pauses (both in dialogue and halted movement), and spoken intimations and deflections.
Central to their behaviour is the theme of daring to act upon one’s deepest emotions, as exemplified by a 16th century story of “speak or die”, which Elio and Oliver discussed in the scene that led to their decision to go to town together. Here it is already clear that Oliver’s determination to keep his distance is waning:
Suddenly the hitherto-distant Oliver, both to Elio and us, is pivotal to the scene – there are so few close-ups in the film that this is tantamount to an explosion – the racking of the focus to him giving him even more agency.
Furthermore, he starts the scene with just one foot in the pool, his mind “divided”, but then turns into a position that indicates a yearning for completeness. The pool is also connected to the statues being rescued from the Lake Garda, as charted here, and the statues are related to homosexuality in the film.
The piazza scene is underpinned by several developments and discrete elements. They are curiously mirroring each other, as if in tentative harmony: Both wear sunglasses and Oliver smokes for the first time in the film, like we saw Elio do for the first time in the disco scene – another pivotal moment since it was here his attraction to Oliver seemed to take hold in earnest, and given extra importance by introducing the film’s first tight close-up after as much as 28 minutes. Oliver offers a cigarette to Elio and both are smoking.
The piazza scene makes outstanding use of a recurring musical theme, Ravel’s Miroir III – Une Barque sur l’océan. As so many other pieces of music in the film, it is heard both diegetically and non-diegetically, blurring the barrier between artifice and realism. It appears first played by Elio in one of the film’s many wonderful passages of loneliness and yearning. The occasion is the day after he missed a date with Marzia (where he hoped for sex) because he returned late from the trip to Lake Garda. The house is empty and his playing is caressing three images of that emptiness:
Elio’s bike stands alone, meaning Oliver is away. (Later in the film bikes are meaningfully used in a related way: the morning when Oliver will respond positively to Elio’s note asking for a rendezvous, we see both bikes, their frames even intertwined, in the same place, as foreshadowing of the good news.) The view from the balcony is one among the film’s many high vantage points, and specifically recalls Elio’s first sight of Oliver, looking down on him from the window of Elio’s temporary room.
After the playing, Elio reads a bit from Oliver’s notes, and sneaks into his room to fool around with his shorts. It is as if these activities have been successful call-outs for Oliver, who now appears, seen from another high vantage point (the smaller balcony at the opposite end of the house). Oliver is still elusive, however, as he is merely walking away. (This moment represents a new start, as discussed here.)
On the piazza, the Ravel piece first occurs as Elio has been left with his own thoughts after Oliver has entered the café to the buy cigarettes. The music is bubbling forth as a lyrical evocation of the “speak or die” motif, Elio’s irresistible urge to speak of his love for Oliver…
…but the music goes into hiding again as soon as Oliver returns and gets physically close, precisely when Elio touches his hand receiving the cigarette.
Perhaps the most stimulating passage of the piazza scene, with a highly distinctive, softly stunning lyricism, happens after this dialogue that gradually brings Elio’s feelings into relief: (Elio) “Well, if you only knew how little I know about the things that matter.” (Oliver) “What things that matter?” (Elio) “You know what things.” (Oliver) “Why are you telling me this?” (Elio)” ‘Cause I thought you should know.”(Oliver) “Because you thought I should know?” (Elio) “‘Cause I wanted you to know?”
The word “wanted” seems to represent a breakthrough for Elio, because he now repeats to himself, with an air of finality: “Because I wanted you to know.” This also marks a shift in the staging, as the characters leave for the other side of the monument…
…and at the exact point Oliver disappears behind the bush, like when he went into the café leaving Elio alone, the Ravel piece returns.
Now the Ravel becomes a chorus, in combination with a rhythmic recurrence of a visual motif, soaring camera movements, and Elio’s emboldened spirit.
Backtracking a little: As Elio twice more, with certainty, repeats the line “Because I wanted you to know” against the Ravel piece, the intimacy of his words melts into the music in a lyrical, emotionally uplifting symbiosis. This verbal and musical poetry is soon joined by visual and historical poetry, as the camera boldly tilts upwards along the monument, falling to rest on the soldier. He stands naked and honest against the sky, fearlessly engaging with the world, the spiritual condition Elio is working towards.
Afterwards, the camera’s glide down again coincides with the music swelling with newfound force, as if it too has been reinvigorated by the statue, and together with Elio the music too is fearlessly approaching Oliver. The last notes of the Ravel accompanies Elio’s message: “Because there’s no one else I can say this to but you.”
After Oliver has gone into a shop to get his manuscript, the music returns, as once again the camera and Elio look up into the sky, at the spire of a church. But even though still quite strong, the music is more subdued, as if the church is representing a society that is not encouraging the love Elio has for Oliver, dampening his spirit somewhat. The music continues as Oliver comes out again, but stops as the bell from that very tower starts to chime.
The soldier on the monument, a large rock in his hands, was in the process of killing a monster, which lies between them here, as Elio has started to air his feelings. Like the hero soldier vanquished his symbolic enemy, the hero of Call Me by Your Name has to overcome Oliver’s resistance towards a romantic relationship and his own fear of speaking up. The monster alludes to the enormity of Elio’s struggle and turmoil. By the way, note how during all these stops both of them are touching the railing – despite their great distance, they indirectly touch each other, continuing the pattern from the Lake Garda sequence.
Looking at the scene with a compositional gaze, notice the stops Oliver makes at this side of the monument. In the first four stops he is framed either against door, arch or the canopy (and perfectly centred in the latter). When he returns to this side, pausing before they leave the piazza, he is seen against the door again. Oliver is framed in this manner only when he is alone.
Oliver pauses one more time before he leaves this side, but that is very brief and “uncomposed”. On the other side, they are both standing on a white line (which also could function as a mark when the director is staging the scene). At that stop, there some nice body language: Elio is swinging his body from side to side, and Oliver answers with a subdued version, like a mating ritual. Later as Oliver tries to quench Elio’s entreaties, saying “It means we can’t talk about those kinds of things. Okay? We just can’t.” they are standing right in front of the monument.
Another flourish: as they meet on the other side of the monument, a bus arrives. Elio looks at it while Oliver is off getting the manuscript, and it remains visible in the background for a considerable time. It is the same bus (the same company at least) that Elio and Oliver will eventually leave in. Thus, the following conversation with the bus in the background takes on a certain irony: (Oliver) “Don’t go anywhere. Stay right here. ” (Elio) “You know I’m not going anywhere.” (Later, an eager Chiara echoes Oliver’s “don’t go anywhere” but he just bikes off.)
(slide show) As regards the camera looking up into the sky, it is interesting to look at three other occasions, where shots are starting with this angle.
Coincidentally, the film’s first scene where Elio and Oliver have a private conversation occurs in a square too (not the same place though) and that too is shot in a long take (of 80 seconds). All three scenes in the above slide show have to do with time. In the conversation scene the camera takes in a bell tower and the scene ends with bells ringing. Later, as Elio is waiting for Oliver to come home, the shot starts with the moon. The calmness of these situations is cast aside on the third occasion, where the camera is racing down from the sky in a blur, down to the bus for the departing lovers, probably in reflection of the exhilarated mood, strengthened by a brutal motorcycle sound, and there is a bell ringing as the bus is ready for departure. (The bells, as well as the one in the piazza scene, are part of an extensive pattern connected to Oliver.)
A final point about the piazza scene: the distancing device is reiterated, but never overcome, in the later break-up scene where Marzia movingly understands that she is not “your girl”. No indirecting touching here. (The guilty-looking Elio even wears Oliver’s shirt here and upon spotting Marzia, he drapes a towel over it as if to hide it.)
Let us follow the film a bit further after the piazza scene, where the music returns and its name, “Une Barque sur l’océan”, really comes into its right, as the characters are floating through an ocean of nature. The shot starts with a close-up of Oliver panting and sweating, as if the bike ride is a substitute for sexual activity, as they engage in their usual competitive games. This can be seen even after they have become lovers, for example in their playful wrestling during the midnight tryst and in the hotel room late in the film. (The scene before that, when they run shouting their names up the hillside towards the waterfall, is not just them being drunk with love, but likely also a competition to reach the goal first.)
As they line up to start a new stage of their race, the Ravel starts again:
They take off, but in a wonderful, meditative moment the camera remains motionless for more than 30 seconds, gazing at the empty road. This is also reminiscent of the later shot of the empty road when the devastated Elio is driven home by his mother. Even though scenes may seem carefree, there is often this premonition of later unhappiness.
After having been served water by the old lady at a small square, the music starts again as they leave her, and over the next shot…
…until in this shot it grows livelier and darker, and as Elio enters the frame, more dramatic. Again, nature as an engulfing, implacable ocean is emphasised, in an almost 180 degree left-to-right pan, which only in passing includes the characters.
As they reach Elio’s “secret place”, the cool pond, the music is abruptly broken off – the effect is even more pronounced since it comes directly after the calm of the previous camera movement – and it is never to be heard again. The film is now returning to a starker reality. (Elio has won this stage of the race with flying colours.)
Like the piazza, the pond (and its surroundings) becomes an arena for sparring and competition, with a much emboldened Elio.
The hotel room
The piazza scene returns in a short, hallucinatory burst via an exuberant but eerie dream in Elio and Oliver’s hotel room the night before the latter’s departure. Only Elio is asleep, so on a realistic plane it is he who is dreaming, but since the scene is told from Oliver’s point-of-view and he is looking at the sleeping boy, we get the odd feeling that they are sharing the dream. The vision is all the more startling because it is completely “silent”, only overlaid with the early morning street sounds below the hotel window.
The following slide show delineates the dream, which lasts only for five seconds and four shots (the show can be restarted from the beginning at any time by clicking on the image to enlarge it, and then return to the article):
In the dream they have climbed the Battle of Piave monument and especially the first shot is very strange: through some camera trick the monument seems adrift, with the church in the background unmoored from the foreground as the camera moves. This could be a clever representation of the spinning mind of a person gone to sleep while still drunk. Contrary to the real scene, Elio is wearing a shirt here. This could be Oliver’s shirt, which he was gifted.
The last thing they did before the hotel room scene is this kiss, which happens entirely out of focus. This may indicate both their drunken state and the bubble they are in, impervious to anything besides each other…
…besides, this is in fact another closure, since their first full-on kiss was in soft focus too…
…and, interestingly, the device returns as Oliver sits gazing at the sleeping Elio. He is now alone, however, as if lost. It is only at the end he turns sharp, as if he now has realised that their relationship cannot last. Our impression of such a realisation taking place is also helped by the camera closing in slightly. The out-of-focus kiss was their last emotionally true act, in great contrast to their awkward goodbye at the station the next morning. So in this shot Oliver leaves their bubble of love, but it is also a betrayal, the more so as it happens at the same time as Elio’s exuberant dream.
This scene is also noteworthy for being one of the few situations not from Elio’s point-of-view. (See this enclosure for a list.) It recalls another important Oliver point-of-view scene, after the couple have returned from the swim following their night of lovemaking. Here Oliver decides to put the suddenly distant Elio to the test by going down on him, to see if he can easily awake Elio’s desire (and also, in keeping with their highly competitive relationship, to regain the upper hand emotionally, by denying Elio sex after having initiated it). The two scenes mirror each other, both in situation and cinematic devices:
Not only does Oliver remember, perhaps just unconsciously, but the film itself is remembering, and very lucidly: in the earlier situation Oliver looked at the empty bed, wondering if the passionate lovemaking that night had only been of a passing, almost illusionary nature, before he decided to actively pursue a continuation of the relationship. In the hotel room the bed is now occupied by his lover, but Oliver seems to have decided, or have faced the inevitability of, breaking off the relationship, and now feels guilty about the effects this may have on Elio. Note that both situations use close-ups, an exceedingly rare device in this film.
This section of the film, when the couple are in a city after having spent time frolicking about in nature, is not only starting and ending with hotel room scenes, but the window is meaningfully used:
Upon arrival they share a happy moment in the window, but during the last night it frames Oliver’s lonely, desolate figure. His wakefulness also echoes the many times, as he told Elio, he spent nights awake yearning for Elio.
Precisely windows are an important motif in the film, and in a wider meaning, all views across differing levels, for example from the balcony down at the ground. These views often involve characters spying on other people.
This is the first post-title-sequence shot, presenting Marzia as friend, but a potential sex partner due to her position. She will soon vacate the bed, however, which will be the arena for a rival’s lovemaking with Elio. (Note that there are separate beds at this point, but in later scenes they have been joined, as if in preparation for Elio and Oliver’s sex.)
Elio’s packing is interrupted by the sound of an arriving car…
…he walks to the window of his temporary room, the one he is forced to move into due to Oliver’s stay…
…getting his first view of Oliver.
This is a moment that will only be meaningful upon re-viewing the film: Marzia looks strangely apprehensive, as if she has a premonition that Elio, whom she likes a lot, will be drawn away from her. We see that this opening scene is mirroring what will happen later in the film, in that Elio is literally being lured away from her by Oliver’s arrival…
…but further mirroring the future action, she will still pursue him, like she now joins him at the window.
It is quite moving to compare the shot of the two friends (“for life” as it turned out) in Elio’s temporary room with the scene of temporary happiness in the hotel room.
It is tempting to include this shot in the pattern too, Oliver “spying” on Mafalda as he is walking out to his first breakfast at the Perlman home.
This is not anyone observing someone, but the point is the camera gaze towards a different plane. Elio has started masturbating but Oliver is underway and will soon interrupt him.
Elio spots Oliver from the balcony (the culmination of the sequence earlier discussed here). Even though the so-often elusive Oliver is walking away from him here, this repetition of the first sighting signals a new start in their relationship. This is lent extra emphasis by the re-emergence, for the only time, of the title sequence music: John Adams’s Hallelujah Junction. The next scene is the reading-aloud of the “speak or die” story – where in another subtle turning point, it rains for the first time in the film – and after that Elio is emboldened and Oliver shows a new interest in Elio.
Here is another gaze from one level to another, this one from the ground as Elio gets a fleeting glimpse of Oliver in his room, at a point when Oliver was largely avoiding him.
Looking down at the gay couple leaving, on the night of the sexual rendezvous between Elio and Oliver.
Tellingly, as if they are now on the same wavelength, or literally speaking the same level, he spots Oliver, who has been observing the same scene, from the balcony.
A nice poetic touch as windows are flooded with morning light (from left: the balcony, the bathroom window, Elio’s temporary room’s window).
After they return from the swim the mood is pensive – in great contrast to their moving through the same corridor the night before in perfect harmony – and the film makes a big deal of showing them entering their rooms in parallel, but Oliver is left gazing at an empty window after Elio breaks the symmetry.
After Oliver has made a decision (his reasoning was explained here)…
…he starts giving Elio a blow-job, against the windows. In this film, they are very often allowing us a view of the orchard, which is very important as a source for the various fruits, particularly peaches and apricots, symbols for sex and sensuality that we will examine in a later article.
This leads us to a certain much-criticised camera movement during Elio and Oliver’s lovemaking, but let us pick up this shot as well, an in-between moment during their foreplay, showing the view from the balcony door…
…which is also a kind of foreshadowing of this moment (although this is not the same tree, the view from the balcony and Oliver’s room are from different sides of the building). Here the camera has turned away from the lovers, concluding one of the majestic long takes (here 123 seconds) the film is full of. Given the sex symbolism of the orchard, this is an absolutely fine way of ending the scene…
…especially since the heterosexual encounters are at least as discretely shown. In the first one, where Elio suffers an ignoble premature ejaculation, the couple are relegated to the corner of the frame – and the prominent greenery is in keeping with the tone of the film, as we have seen earlier. The second scene ends in the moment above, with Marzia still wearing her bikini bottom, and her breasts have been exposed for only about 15 seconds.
Finally, the window allows us to see snow falling on the landscapes that opened the epilogue.
This chapter started with the opening scene and it is a sign of its pervasive symbolism that a window is also included in the last shot.
Enclosure: Non-Elio point-of-view scenes or situations
Almost the entire film is told from Elio’s point-of-view, with a few exceptions.
Entire scenes, in chronological order:
We are briefly sharing Oliver’s feeling of being newly arrived when he walks down to his first breakfast
Short scene where Oliver meets Marzia and Chiara who are arriving, while Elio is inside tending to his nosebleed
Oliver and Dr. Perlman discussing the slides of the statues (although Elio listens in on its last part)
Short scene where Oliver tells Mafalda he will not be present at dinner and afterwards he leaves the house as Marzia arrives for a date with Elio
After they have returned from the swim following their night of lovemaking, Oliver decides to put the suddenly distant Elio to the test by going down on him (this whole section, starting with their waking up, tends to be seen from Oliver’s point-of-view)
Elio’s parents discuss Elio joining Oliver on his trip before he leaves Italy – the only scene where neither Elio nor Oliver is present
Parts of scenes, in chronological order:
We see him in the foreground as they discuss the “speak or die” story, before they decide to go to town and the piazza scene
We see him panting in close-up at the start of the scene where he is biking with Elio, immediately after the piazza scene
A nervous Marzia waits before her date with Elio in the city
After the night of lovemaking Oliver is thoughtful at the start of the breakfast scene
Annella talking about food with Mafalda and another woman in the kitchen before Elio’s peach scene
Elio’s parents talk to Chiara after the bus with Elio and Oliver has left, inviting she and Marzia to dinner
Elio’s parents talk to Oliver on the phone in the epilogue, although Elio is in the other room and can hear everything