To Speak or To Die: Queer Desire and Speechlessness in Call Me By Your Name (2017)

When Call Me By Your Name premiered in 2017, it was widely lauded for its sensual but quiet portrayal of a queer first love story. Some authors, like NPR’s Glen Weldon, remarked on how surprising it was to watch a queer love story unfold without being disrupted by a homophobic world, as we’ve come to expect from such movies. And yet, somewhere in northern Italy is not a sealed off bubble from the rest of the world. Instead the outside world permeates the story in subtler and more profound ways, making what cannot be voiced as important as what is shown onscreen.

Illustration by Sasi Tee

The experience of speechlessness, understood as the inability to articulate one’s inner life to the outside, is not an inherently queer experience. And yet, due to the circumstances of historical societal development, it has been imposed upon queer peoples in specific ways that concern their identities and desires that is not analogous to heterosexual people. This speechlessness is multi-layered and might manifest in different ways, but it stems from the marginalisation of queer identity and desire in society.

The 2017 movie Call Me By Your Name (cmbyn) by Luca Guadagnino, based on the 2007 novel of the same name by André Aciman, features this conflict at its core. While most queer movies place the central conflict that needs to be overcome outside its central characters, like for example a queerphobic family, an institution or the government threatening the existence of the characters or even a bigoted attack that the characters have to suffer through, Call Me By Your Name invokes the question of identity and marginalisation through the speechlessness that its core characters, Elio and Oliver, suffer due to the queer desire they experience. Set in the summer of 1983 somewhere in northern Italy, cmbyn tells the story of seventeen year old Elio Pearlman who falls in love with Oliver, a graduate student, who spends the summer living with Elio’s family to work on his book and with Elio’s father.

As already stated, this speechlessness is multifaceted and even the two characters experience it in different ways and for different reasons. One reason is that, as a marginalised identity, people experiencing queer desire do not have a cultural framework within which to understand this desire. This is due to the assumption of heterosexuality as the norm which permeates our culture (see Warner). While heterosexual people grow up with a normative idea of a heteronormative life, such as finding a different sex partner, probably marrying them, having children and living out that life monogamously till death do them part, and see that life lived both around them and through TV, movies and books, queer people, for the longest time, could not rely on such examples to contextualise their own desires. Lacking a framework or reference for one’s own experience can render one speechless indeed.

Another reason for the inability to speak is the shame that is attached to sexual deviance in our culture. The shame stems from the normative idea of a certain kind of sexuality that is, among other things, heterosexual, while being outside the norm means being other and wrong.

Of course, there is also a great amount of fear mixed into this speechlessness. That fear is twofold: fear of the reaction of society at large and then, on a more personal level, fear of the reaction by the object of desire to their queer advances. On the negative side, both can range from rejection or humiliation to bodily peril and even the threat of deathi.

On the basis of this understanding of the relation between queer desire and speechlessness, this essay looks at Elio and Oliver. The focus thereby is on how either of them experiences speechlessness and how that influences their relationship.

Better to speak or die ? 🍑 by Nevhada

“‘Better to speak’ she says”

Speechlessness can be seen as the main opponent in Elio’s story. It’s the obstacle he must overcome to gain what he most desires, Oliver, and which takes courage to overcome. The story of their relationship is the story of conquering speechlessness and its end is marked by the return of it.

Of course, that development is not linear, and the speechlessness Elio experiences, though always connected to queer desire, stems from different sources at different points in his narrative. Elio’s first struggle with speechlessness is the struggle to make sense of his own attraction to Oliver and being able to name and understand it. That happens mostly internally, and all the audience gets to experience is how that makes him act towards Oliver. We see it in the ways Elio searches out Oliver, wanting to talk to him and be in his presence. We also see it in his inability to handle Oliver physically touching him, as Oliver attempts to make the first step, reach out and give him an innocuous massage at a volleyball game with other young people from around town and later when Elio complains about Oliver’s aloof behaviour to his parents. Oliver gets under his skin and his reactions betray that.

A different kind of speechlessness takes over when it becomes apparent to the audience (and maybe just then to Elio) that what he is experiencing for Oliver is desire . Witnessing Oliver first dance and then make out with Chiara, a girl they are friends with, shows Elio hurt and vulnerable, clearly jealous but unwilling to admit that to anyone, maybe not even to himself. He knows what he wants but he’s clearly afraid to act on his desire, opting for boasting about his own (heterosexual) exploits and lewdly talking to Oliver about his in turn. That this speechlessness is characterised by fear and not confusion becomes clear when Elio’s mother reads to him a story about a young knight who is desperately in love with a princess. Due to the friendship that has blossomed between them, he sees himself unable to bring up the subject of his love until he finally says “Ich bitte euch ratet mir was ist besser: reden oder sterben. Is it better to speak or to die?”. Commenting on this conundrum Elio admits to his parents that he would “never have the courage to ask a question like that”, prompting his father to profess that he doubts that.

In the following scene Elio brings this story up to Oliver, who knows the story and still asks Elio if the knight spoke, to what Elio replies “’Better to speak,’ she said. But she’s on her guard. She senses a trap somewhere,”. It’s the interlude to the pivotal scenes in the movie in which Elio breaks the silence, even though he does not yet overcome his speechlessness.

The whole idea of code is circumventing the feeling of speechlessness by articulating something without explicitly stating the meaning of the message, a method that queer people have used for ages in different ways. The same goes for subtext or insinuation. All of them are predicated on the idea that whoever receives the message has access to context information that make it decipherable. If they don’t, they will not understand it and the person who sent out the message has not divested anything. Elio’s and Oliver’s conversation at the World War I memorial is based on all of this. It starts out innocently enough, with Elio spewing history trivia and Oliver being both endeared and impressed by it. Elio replies that he “know[s] nothing,” and clarifies about “how little [he] knows about the things that matter,” which gives the conversation a drastic turn towards the intimate. When Oliver asks for clarification Elio says, “you know what things,”. It is a clear allusion to the shared common ground Elio assumes with Oliver. Elio is as much confessing as he is proposing something to Oliver. It is clear that Oliver, who starts to sound abrasive with a hint of panic, understands, questioning why Elio would tell him this. Elio’s answer is a testament to his own desire saying that he thought Oliver should know, and then adding that he wanted Oliver to know. Meanwhile they are walking around the memorial that divides up the square. They have never spoken so intimately and still there is a great distance between them as they are standing on opposite sides, and it seems like Oliver is moving further and further away with everything Elio reveals, while Elio follows him as they move further around the oval structure. When they reach the other side, their world is forever changed. Coming back together Elio says, “because there is no one else I can say these things to but you,” alluding both to their sameness in being queer men and the marginalisation they experience because of it. Oliver still asks, “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”, further consolidating that he’s gleaned the meaning from Elio’s coded messages. They understand each other, they know of each other now. There’s an interlude where Oliver enters a building to run an errand and then tries to deflect upon his return. Elio does not let go of it though, stating that he should not have said anything. Oliver agrees, stating that they should pretend that he never did. Still unwilling to give up, Elio remarks, “So we’re on speaking terms but not really,” which prompts Oliver to turn around and face him, telling him “It means we can’t talk about those kinds of things. Okay? We just can’t,” thus acknowledging the speechlessness that damns them to keep what they desire inside. They ‘can’t talk about these kinds of things’ because they mustn’t. This is an allusion to the societal context of time and place. Homosexuality was not prohibited by law in Italy, but the influence of the Catholic church and their anti-queer stance still condemned homosexuality. The U.S. are a more complicated issue, with rights and general acceptance differing, depending on the year and the state. In New England, where Oliver is from, same-sex relations had been legalised between 1971 and 1977 (with the exception of Rhode Island, where it took till 1997), but discrimination was wide ranging and could lead to violence. So, while Elio tried to break his silence, it is Oliver who, knowing the dangers of their attraction, attempts to silence both Elio and his own desire.

The aftermath of this is characterised by a back and forth, wherein Elio pushes against the barrier Oliver has established between them. In a way it is not his own speechlessness that Elio must overcome but Oliver’s. Oliver seems to relent bit by bit, while also letting himself be pulled in by Elio’s pursuit of him, only to then step back and reject Elio anew.

While adamant to not engage with Elio and their desire, it is Oliver who initiates their first kiss, only to rebuff Elio after he follows up with a second one. Similarly, it is Oliver who follows Elio into the house to comfort him after Elio gets a nosebleed by massaging his feet and kissing his ankle. Afterwards though he flees the premise, leaving Elio waiting and searching for him, only to literally close the door to Elio’s room, all the while figuratively closing it to the tentative affair, they couldn’t help but engage in.

Especially Elio suffers during this period, caught between the knowledge that Oliver wants him and the rejection and speechlessness that Oliver has imposed on him. Elio tries to distract himself by going out with Marzia but his desperation for Oliver eventually wins out and he sends the latter a note. It’s one of the few moments in the movie where we are treated to a voice-over that tells us the different drafts that Elio writes before finally settling on a note saying “Can’t stand the silence. Need to speak to you,”. Here once again, the speechlessness and the need to overcome it is actual text.

The first time they sleep together is the catalyst to overcome their speechlessness, but the effect is not instantaneous. There is not a lot of dialogue, except for Oliver checking in with Elio (“You okay?” / “Can I kiss you?” / “Does this make you happy?”), before they consummate the desire that has been building up for weeks since the beginning of the movie. When Oliver tells Elio “Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine,” there is no space between them, as they lay intertwined in their post-orgasmic intimacy. The statement itself is a new kind of code: for them calling the other by one’s own name needs to encompass the entirety of the emotional heft of their bond. During the morning after, it is Elio and not Oliver who is rendered speechless once more, barely saying a word. Elio shies away from Oliver’s touch, seemingly working through something similar as he did after the massage incident and unsure what to make of the new development, leaving Oliver uncertain of where they stand.

It is in the aftermath of both of them sleeping together for the first time and Elio’s struggle with the change it brought that Elio and Oliver are finally able to not only break the silence but breach the speechlessness and give words to their feelings. First, Elio seeks Oliver and tells him point blank “I just wanted to be with you,”. Similarly, Oliver now can earnestly ask the question “Do you know how happy I am that we slept together?” and then tell Elio “I would kiss you, if I could,”. In the same way, Elio later admits that he doesn’t want Oliver to leave. He does so while crying nearly hysterically, showing vulnerability both in his words and in his search for comfort from Oliver.

It takes a good two-thirds of the movie to get to this point and the enjoyment of the love that they can share is short-lived. The end of their summer breaks into the story, disturbing Oliver’s quiet contemplation while Elio sleeps with a loud horn that transports them to the train station. No dialogue accompanies this scene except for Elio’s trivial question of whether Oliver has his passport. They are standing in broad daylight on the platform of a train station and there are no words. Speechlessness has caught up with them once more and all they have is a hug that lasts too long and is filled with too much desperation, in the way Elio clutches at Oliver, nearly refusing to let him go, to be innocuous. Oliver still gets on the train, barely able to look at Elio, while Elio is left standing on the platform, looking after the train, wearing the blue shirt Oliver had worn when he’d arrived on that first day weeks ago.

At the end of the film, months after summer’s end, Elio and Oliver share a final conversation over the phone. Elio uses his own name to remind Oliver of all of what they shared. Oliver does remember but it does not change the finality of their ending. It is acknowledged that Elio’s parents Annella and Samuel knew what was going on between the two and even approved of it. Oliver states that Elio can count himself lucky, that if his parents found out they’d send him to conversion therapy. And so, he is getting married to a woman. Elio is able to articulate that he misses Oliver, but Oliver was only able to escape his speechlessness for a time and only when with Elio. The outside world has broken into their togetherness with finality, damning their desire and love to become a memory instead of a shared reality.

by Sasi Tee

“Because we can’t talk about these kinds of things, okay? We just can’t.”

The story of Elio and Oliver ends with the outside world, a world in which their desire is an aberration from the norm, breaking in, destroying the possibility of a shared future. As is key for the whole story, it is not a person or revelation that ends that possibility, but a decision that Oliver makes himself. That is not to say that Oliver breaks things off with Elio willingly. Instead his decision has to be seen in context of time, place, character and the way speechlessness is connected to Oliver’s experience of queer desire.

While Elio’s struggle with speechlessness is characterised mostly by his inability to understand his desire and then on how to act accordingly, Oliver’s is informed by shame and fear. As we see most of the movie from Elio’s perspective, we get few moments where it focuses on Oliver’s interiority. However, the shame he feels about his desire and his attraction to Elio is evident in his statements and in his behaviour towards Elio. The same is true about his fear of being found out by his environment as experiencing this desire.

Even though cmbyn sets itself apart by not employing the trope of an external conflict to further the plot of the story, the threat of the outside finding out about the relationship between Elio and Oliver is still evident in the movie and actually shapes their whole relationship and what we see of it. Even after Elio has broken through his speechlessness and torn down Oliver’s barriers, the fear of being found out remains. They’ve started whispering but they are not out and loud about what’s happening between them. We see this on the one hand at the places that their intimacy is allowed to take place. They only act as lovers in the seclusion of Elio’s parents’ house, their hotel room in Bergamot, far removed from spectators in Elio’s secret spot somewhere out in the country or under the guise of the dark of night. This is in stark contrast with the behaviour of the heterosexual pairings in the movie which has Oliver making out with Chiara for all to see and Elio going on a date in broad daylight with Marzia, as well as kissing her openly around the grounds of the house. In the same vain Elio and Oliver tell no one about their relationship. Both Elio’s parents and Marzia find out by deducing their behaviour but they all follow the boys lead and do not address it directly or openly. That this is all part of a deliberate attempt at concealing their relationship becomes evident in a conversation that Oliver and Elio have the night of their first sexual encounter. Elio tells Oliver that Mafalda, their housekeeper, always looks for signs, prompting Oliver to state that she won’t find any. Similarly, Elio reassures Oliver that he won’t tell anyone about what they did together.

This reassurance is given to Oliver after he tells Elio, sombre but intense, “I don’t want you to regret anything. And I hate the thought that maybe I may have messed you up or… I don’t want either of us to pay for this,”. Oliver’s “That’s not what I’m talking about,” to Elio’s reassurance gives us a hint that the shame he feels is an even bigger deterrent to pursuing anything with Elio, than his fear. In context with other statements Oliver makes about his desire for Elio and his sexuality in general, all of this takes on a darker tone, informed by self-loathing and shame for who he is and what he wants. For example, when Elio masturbates into a peach Oliver says “What’s next? Minerals? I suppose you’ve already given up animals. You know that’s me, right?”. While this is clearly said in a joking manner, his reference to sodomy laws that lump(ed) together bestiality with homosexuality, classifying queer people as less than human and outside correct and acceptable human sexuality, gives us a glimpse to a deep-seated internalised shame that Oliver struggles with. That just becomes clearer with other things Oliver says, that show that he’s desired Elio (“You make things very difficult for me,”) but feels that engaging in anything sexual-romantic with Elio would be a bad thing to do. The idea of needing to be ashamed of such behaviour actually is text in the movie when Oliver says after they share their second kiss “I know myself, okay? And we’ve been good. We haven’t done anything to be ashamed of and that’s a good thing. I wanna be good,”. Oliver believes his sexuality to be a shameful thing and even though Elio is the one to make advances towards him, it is Oliver who is worried he might corrupt, hurt or taint Elio with his behaviour. That worry is clearly stated when Oliver, confused and uncertain due to Elio’s cold behaviour after they’ve had sex for the first time asks, “Do you hold what happened last night against me?” or when he presumes that the nosebleed Elio got hours after their first kiss was, for some reason, his fault.

It is then not surprising that Oliver, in a way, wanted the speechlessness to stay as a safe barrier between them, imploring Elio to pretend he never broke the silence at the memorial and then telling him that they literally can’t talk about these things. They can’t talk about these things not because it’s illegal but because shame tells Oliver that he shouldn’t, just as fear tells him that he mustn’t. His comment about how his parents would have sent him to conversion therapy had they found out about his sexuality gives us an idea where both his shame and fear come from and that especially his fear was never unsubstantiated. While Elio manages to break down Oliver’s barriers for a moment, for the summer, helping him overcome his own speechlessness and be with Elio, even if constrained by everything that silenced them in the first place, fear and shame finally win over and Oliver settles into a heteronormative life and accepting the silence that goes with that.

CMBYN Fanart Poster by Sasi Tee

“Parc que c’était lui, parc que c’étai moi.”

Elio and Oliver experience speechlessness in different ways due to different reasons. All of these reasons are connected to what their societal context thinks of queer desire. While queerphobic behaviour is not the personified villain in cmbyn, a queerphobic society is still what dooms their relationship, and for one reason or another, renders both men speechless.

Much more could be said about how the movie picks up on that theme. There are the secondary characters of Elio’s parents, Annella and Samuel, who both find out about their son’s relationship but do not address it plainly, neither during it nor in the aftermath. Both instead opt to talk through allusions and innocuous generalisations, talking about “friendship, maybe more” and how “he [Oliver] likes you [Elio], too. More than you like him,”. Elio’s friend Marzia also seems to understand that there was something more going on between Elio and Oliver but never speaks about it, except for the one time where she asks him if he’s mad at Chiara because of Oliver, after the two make out on the dance floor.

On another level the music in cmbyn picks up the idea of speechlessness constantly. There are three non-diegetic songs in the movie. They are also the only non-period appropriate pieces. All three of them are played to underscore a certain mood pertaining to Elio’s emotions. The song Futile Devices by Sufjan Stevens is a love song about being in love with someone and being unable to tell them just that. “And I would say I love you/But saying it out loud is hard/So I won’t say it at all,” Stevens sings. It plays over a scene of Elio pining for Oliver after they’ve shared their first kiss. The original song Mystery of Love, also by Stevens, is as much about the wonder and excitement of first love, as it is also about the pain of that first love ending, foreshadowing the story’s ending. The second original Stevens song Visions of Gideon is teased as an instrumental before they sleep together for the first time. It is fully played during the final scene after Elio and Oliver have had their final conversation and underscores the finality of their parting, “I have loved you for the last time / Visions of Gideon, Visions of Gideon / I have touched you for the last time,”.

In the same vain the diegetic songs also pick up on moods and themes of the film. The song Lady Lady Lady by Giorgio Moroder is about longing to be with someone and it plays right over Elio watching Oliver kissing someone else, whereas Words by F.R. David is another song about being unable to tell the person you love that you love them. Finally Love My Way by The Psychedelic Furs is the only diegetic song that is played more than once in the movie. The first time it plays right after Lady Lady Lady, breaking up Oliver’s and Chiara’s kissing with the upbeat song, which leads Elio’s friends to join the dancefloor, while he remains seated working through his feelings for Oliver for a moment before dancing too. The second time is when Oliver and Elio are in Bergamot together, dancing happily in love through the nightly city streets. This song is in contrast with many of the other songs and is actually in opposition with speechlessness. Love My Way is about loving who you want despite what the world tells you to do or not to do. Richard Butler explicitly said in an interview in 1983 “It’s basically addressed to people who are fucked up about their sexuality and says, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ It was originally written for gay people,”.

Speechlessness can be overcome, and one does not have to let oneself be silenced by society. The movie makes that clear by showing us that there could have been a future for Elio and Oliver through the acceptance that they experience from Elio’s parents and Marzia, as well as the gay couple that visits the house for dinner. The end of Elio and Oliver was never inevitable. That they don’t end up together is still not freely chosen. As a queer person living in 1983 choosing speechlessness over “love my way” was choosing the security of heteronormativity over the danger of self-expression.

i Considering other queer movies that we looked at within this class we can see these experiences mirrored in movies like Love, Simon or The Miseducation of Cameron Post. While in Love, Simon Simon is unable to honestly communicate this identity and desire because of his fear of the reaction of the outside world, The Miseducation of Cameron Post shows us a scenario where queer desire has been found out and is judged, leading to the attempt to silence and correct Cameron’s queer desire through homophobic pseudo-science.

Sources/Further Reading

Guadagnino, Luca (2017): Call me by your name [DVD], München: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Deutschland GmbH.

Gunn, Alex (2019): An Enigma: the role of codes in the LGBTQ+ community, The Oxford Student.

Holdship, Bill (1983): The Psychedelic Furs: Sugar Cubes For The New Depression, Cream. Rock’s Backpages Library.

Rubin, Gayle (1993): Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality, Kauffman, Linda S. ed., American feminist thought at century’s end. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Ryan, Hugh (2019): When Brooklyn was Queer. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Warner, Michael (1991): Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet, Social Text, No. 29, pp. 3-17.

6 thoughts on “To Speak or To Die: Queer Desire and Speechlessness in Call Me By Your Name (2017)

  1. Gina Larue

    Thank you for this! I feel as though you have read my mind. When I heard comments about “lack of time” being the only villain in CYBMN I felt a very strong desire to protest loudly. To me it was clear that internalized homophobia is what drove Oliver to abandoning Elio to marry a woman.
    Your observations about speechlessness are amazing- I have watched this movie numerous times and I hadn’t put those pieces together.
    I really appreciate this thoughtful and insightful article!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Before publishing I went back and read some reviews, just wondering what they’d said and one guy at the New Yorker criticised how they don’t talk about the important stuff and I was like “mate, way to miss the point.” ^^
      I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂


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