It would be yesterday's news, if I claimed that our emotions and desires are historically and socially constructed. We have learned not only about how to feel, but also what to feel and whom to yearn for. It is most evident in language. Take, for example, the package of metaphors on love. They have not changed since the beginning of time, basically from the beginning of our conscious memory as a human race. They are still mainly connected to inner organs, head or limbs (I lost my head for you, you are breaking my heart), to heat (I am burning with love), lack of balance (you make my head spin) and so on. That whole reservoir is not as big as we thought. Quite the contrary – just look at the history of Western literature. That is so because it is impossible to express abstract emotions in language, if we are not using metaphors. Even nowadays, when we are trying to say to our partner that we love her/him, we will use the same metaphor as someone from, let’s say, Ancient Rome.
It is quite similar with the construction of our desires. Homosexual and heterosexual love have always existed. They are both inherent to human beings. But our practices in love and/or sex are social and historical constructs, as Foucault and others have shown. Thus, the fact that one is considered normal and natural, and the other not, is surprisingly recent. Since homosexual desire was, and still partly is, socially unacceptable we, as human beings, slowly pushed it aside, we suppressed it and learned to adjust to ‘normality’. Slowly but surely, this oppression is nearing an end, at least in the Western world.
I would not say that Call Me by Your Name is the best movie about gay love, or love in general, but one can argue we can find many types of love in the plot and that, in a way, the last dialogue scene between father and son could be read and/or interpreted as the act of recognition, of the approval of homosexual love between Elio (a 17 year-old boy) and Oliver (Elio's father’s assistant and protegee), and at the same time an approval of love in general.
The story is set in northern Italy in 1983, and all the main characters, except Marzia, the girl with whom Elio loses his virginity, are well-educated, they enjoy art, music, and literature, they belong to the upper middle class, they are white and Jewish. The villa in which the love affair between the teenager and the young man is developing has this kind of bucolic atmosphere where everything is allowed. Elio's father is a professor of art history and archaeology, and thus knows a lot about Greek and Roman culture. So, the idea of love between men is not strange to him, at least as it was conveyed in, for example, Plato’s Symposium.
The stage is all set for love, and as in all ‘the best days of our lives’ types of narratives, everything happens quickly and intensely. Elio gathers all his sexual experience while he is surrounded with love, kindness and approval. There is joy in everything that the characters are doing, whether it is reading or music or art, learning, good food and leisure time, bicycle riding, conversations with friends or hosting a middle-aged homosexual couple from Paris. In this atmosphere, it is quite natural that Elio is completely free to experiment with his sexuality. He would lose his virginity with Marzia. She is in love with him, but he is interested only in the physical aspect of the relationship, and she willingly submits herself to him, without any regrets. However, he is in love with Oliver, and the build-up of the atmosphere slowly leads to the scene of two male characters kissing in the grass near the pond. Again, the atmosphere is quite pastoral. The director, Luca Guadagnino, used a 35mm camera to shoot the film and give it a shade of patina, quite romantic, which only emphasizes the emotional side of the movie.
The greatest achievement of the movie is that, with a different plot, it would also seem plausible. Oliver could have easily been changed to Olivia, even if she would have been a bit older, twice Elio's age for instance, and things would be as normative as they can be. Or it could be a love affair between an elderly gentleman and a young girl, or two gentlemen and a girl. It really does not matter, because Call Me by Your Name is about love between human beings, and not specifically between two men. This can be argued in the light of the aforementioned father's speech to Elio. Although he admits that he had an opportunity for a similar affair, but was afraid to indulge in it, what he is saying still is important for the support of love per se, regardless of the object of desire. This speech is given by a man whose symbolic powers should not be underestimated – he not only possesses power and symbolizes law, as any father figure does, but also possesses knowledge and emotions too, and he is free to express them. And the most important thing is that he realized that the expression of our feelings should be free and not restricted by any social and historical norms. Moreover, the role of the mother is equally highlighted, because she is the one Elio calls when Oliver leaves for the States. She drives him home and does not ask a single question, although it is obvious that her son has lost the one he loves the most.
At the very end of the movie, we will be informed that Oliver is ready to submit himself to the constraints of marriage, but in the little oasis, in the villa among its inhabitants, these social limitations do not exist, regardless of the year being 1983. That is the world of freedom, the one we already had back in the days of disco, the one we are hopefully approaching nowadays, here in the Balkans.
Love, no matter how sad, must win in the end.