The real climax of Call Me By Your Name

So I watched CMBYN for the first time on Sunday, and I have a theory about the real climax of the film. Maybe it’s a bit pretentious for someone who has seen the film once to share a theory in a world of super fans, but here goes.

As we’ve all noticed, the question “is it better to speak or die” (with an interesting parallel to the traditional invocation at weddings- “Speak now or forever hold your breath”) reoccurs several times throughout the film. I would argue these words are even more significant than the words that make up the title.

During his call to Elio, Oliver asks Elio if he minds Oliver’s upcoming marriage. It would be easy to think that this is a throwaway line, a courtesy, but I don’t think it is. Every word is significant in this part of the film, I don’t think it would be included if it were a mere courtesy. I think Oliver is hoping that Elio will say something to save Oliver from himself. In fact, I think these words, and the silence that follows them, are the real climax of the film.

In the script Elio says “you’re being silly”- with a double meaning- he could mean “it’s silly for you to get married” or he could mean “you’re silly to even think I might mind”. Through ambiguity, he carefully avoids really saying anything. In the film itself, unless he mutters something so low that I can’t hear it, he doesn’t respond at all- he looks like he might be going to respond, then his parents pick up the phone.

Elio is faced with a choice between speech and death. He chooses a metaphorical death.

It’s pretty obvious in the film that Oliver’s lack of courage- his inability to live in a way which is authentic to his same-sex desires- dooms his relationship with Elio. He chooses metaphorical death over metaphorical speech. What is perhaps less obvious is that, in this moment, Elio joins him in that indecision, and also chooses death over speech. Both are the knight, both are the princess, both choose to hide what they feel rather than reveal it. Both lose a part of themselves. It’s not fair of course, Elio’s lapse is much smaller than Oliver’s- a mere moment of indecision, but life rarely is fair.

I think this is the meaning of one line of “The Mystery of Love” White noise, what an awful sound- sometimes there is no middle ground between silence and making a noise.

Postscript: Sometimes it is better to die

I realised, rereading the above essay, that I probably gave a misleading impression. I don’t necessarily think that, in choosing to “die” Elio made the wrong choice. He is under no obligation to plead for Oliver to come back to him and abandon his fiancée, and in many ways this would be a risky and perhaps even dishonourable option.

Outside romantic tragedy and comedy in the real world, it’s sometimes better to hold your silence and never speak. We don’t see much of this in art, because it doesn’t make a great story, but that’s the world we find ourselves in. Speak or Die is so compelling as an invocation, exactly because often there is a good case for both.

If you enjoyed this article please consider joining our mailing list: also, a collection of my best writing between 2018 and early 2020 is available as a free e-book “Something to read in quarantine: Essays 2018-2020”. You can grab it here.

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2 thoughts on “The real climax of Call Me By Your Name

  1. I like this take, as well as your final thought: “sometimes there is no middle ground between silence and making a noise.” Random question, did you come upon this film through Sufjan Stevens connection, or by other means?


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