‘Somewhere in Northern Italy’, just bright yellow words on a blue screen, perfectly set the scene for the humid and sweaty love-filled summer of Call Me by Your Name (directed by Luca Guadagnino). At the height of the film’s Oscar-fuelled popularity, as a sexually-unsure high school senior, I decided to watch the film by myself, instead of with my parents, because, obviously, I knew it was about that – the still somewhat taboo (or at least awkwardly-sidestepped) topic of a gay love story. All alone, in the dark, I watched it, felt joy, embarrassment, sadness, the full-range emotions that those who have seen the visually beautiful and emotionally poignant film can also attest to, and thus quickly marked it as a go-to film when needing to have a cry over emotional moments of life. I have come back to it many times in sad nights in halls and while consoling friends.
This past winter break, I read the novel (by André Aciman). Immediately, it felt even more private and intimate than the film, to the point where I felt (surprisingly) uncomfortable reading it around others. Not because it’s quite sexually explicit, but because it captured a part of the LGBT+ experience which the film was likely unable to do. In fact, until reading the novel, I had not even processed that the film’s protagonist (and book’s narrator), Elio, might be bisexual. His relationship with Marzia in the film, for example, is confusing, and leaves us unsure of why he continues to pursue her even though he is so obviously in love with Oliver. Sometimes, it seems like he is only leading her on because he can’t get Oliver (’s attention, or into bed), or because he feels that he has to have a summer fling which his environment will approve of. But the novel tells an entirely different story. We never get access to the conflict and confusion which Elio feels over his attraction and desire for both Oliver and Marzia - again, perhaps because the film is unable to. Despite this, it never plays into the much-too-common bi-phobic tropes of ‘greed’ or ‘wanting it all’. The reason that I found the novel so personal and so hard to experience unless I was entirely alone is because, often, I felt like Elio was thinking my thoughts and feeling my confusion or uncertainty.
There is a further point which the novel fantastically brings to the forefront, which is the difficulty and complexity of dealing with and accepting your sexuality, especially in the undoubtedly more rigid environment of 1980’s Italy. Throughout, Elio is confronted with internal monologues about how to reconcile his sexuality with what he has always imagined was acceptable and correct. In these thoughts, his grandfather is a recurring image, undoubtedly representing the symbolic and ever-present ghost of his family’s expectations for him. This whole part of the book is absent from the movie, and, barring one encounter with his parents’ gay friends (an episode which features in both the film and book), we are not at all exposed to his internal conflict, which is, I think, part of every LGBT+ teen’s experience in coming to accept themself. At least, it was part of mine, and seeing it so well understood, and ul- timately resolved, on the page was shockingly touching and personal.
Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name has, at this point, become a staple of today’s romantic cinema. I encourage everyone who hasn’t seen it yet to watch it: it’s acted marvellously, it’s visuals are jaw-droppingly stunning, and it is scored brilliantly. It makes you want to drop everything and move to ‘Somewhere in Northern Italy’ right away and live a life of drinking apricot juice and sweaty bike rides through the countryside. However, Aciman’s novel captures something about the queer experience, and particularly the bisexual experience, that is not only missing from the film, but feels like was missing from my own journey of self-acceptance and growth as a young adult. Perhaps the film wanted to appeal to a broader audience (a conspiracy that Charles Vivian might delve into in our next issue) by making it less specific, or perhaps the medium of cinema does not lend itself as well to some of the messages and ways of communicating them. Regardless, I think both to be masterpieces in their own domain and would strongly recommend them individually, but I believe that the novel speaks to a set of emotions and experiences that aren’t revealed in the film, and I hope that this encourages more people to read it. It certainly made it worth it for me.