In my mid-twenties, I spent a summer in France. I was there completing my missions site practicum as part of my master’s degree in Intercultural Studies for Fuller Seminary. I helped and learned from an arts organization that served the Parisian artist community by hosting artists-in-residence, managing a gallery and performance space, and helping artists connect with each other. Mostly, I swept the floor, set up chairs for concerts, and kept the building either opened or closed depending on the daily schedule. I also interviewed all the missionaries involved in the organization (all artists themselves in a variety of disciplines and their bread-winning spouses) and wrote about what I was learning. And I spent a week in the Vercors mountains with the family of a doctor who was kind enough to invite me to their home so I could experience another part of France. When I wasn’t sweeping or interviewing missionaries, I went for long walks around the city or countryside. I just looked around. I wrote more than I read. I prayed.
The French have a word for someone like me – a flâneur, a term coined by Baudelaire to denote the “passionate spectator” who is “away from home and yet feels oneself everywhere at home.” The flâneur does not disintegrate into the crowd. He maintains a strong sense of self which, while creating an air of detachment, also enables the flâneur to truly see and understand the city and himself. This 19th-century term is necessarily gendered, as only a man has the societal freedom to go where he wants and simply exist without anyone impinging upon his person. The female counterpart of the flâneur is the passante, as denoted by Proust, though the term carries with it the implication of un-possessability, something only notable with regards to a woman who is supposedly, naturally, otherwise possessable by a man. The passante (frustratingly, for Proust) asserts the prepossessed autonomy of herself against society; the flâneur discovers himself amidst society.
As I walked the streets of Paris and the paths of the Vercors and looked and thought and wrote and prayed about everything that had occurred in my life up to that point, I discovered myself, multifaceted; comprehensible as a whole, confusing in detail; crowded with joy and sorrow locked hand-to-hip in a kind of dance; young; old; as fixed as the foundations of the earth; as fleeting as a pebble flicked across a still pond. One night laying on my cot in the gallery office where I slept across the river from the Louvre, I tapped unfathomable fountains and drowned myself in loneliness. Another evening I sat above a park below Sacré-Cœur to watch the sunset, and I knew I was never and would never be alone. I discovered myself loved and known by God. This short, six-week season of my life was a great gift. It was the culmination of my third conversion experience when my faith, my identity became rooted in God’s faithfulness solely, not in my heritage or in any effort of my own. I met the God Who Is independent of and integrated throughout all things, and I was allowed to be.
Call Me By Your Name depends on a similar sense of time. It is the summer of 1983, and seventeen-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is spending the summer with his father and mother at their home in Lombardy, Italy. There is nothing to do. He reads and works on his music, swims and smokes, and hangs out with girls. An American doctoral student, Oliver (Armie Hammer), arrives to intern with Elio’s father, and Elio and Oliver share a mutual attraction. They spar intellectually and physically. Elio explores and comes to terms with his sexuality, yes, but also with who he wants to be. Elio tests himself against everything like a puzzle piece looking for a place to fit. He’s trying to discern his edges and wondering if the world around him will accept him as he finds them.
Call Me By Your Name was written by James Ivory who’s productions with Ismail Merchant in the 1980s and early 1990s—A Room With A View, Howard’s End, The Remains of the Day—typified a kind of gilded European cinema. The clearest antecedent for Call Me By Your Name though is the 1897 Merchant/Ivory production Maurice, which stars a very young Hugh Grant, James Wilby, and Rupert Graves as young, Edwardian men coming to terms with their sexuality in a time when homosexuality was illegal. Homosexuality isn’t illegal in Call Me By Your Name’s early-80s Italy, but it still carries a stigma, especially for the slightly older American Oliver. Elio’s intellectual, cosmopolitan parents (a graceful Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) grant their son the time to figure out these things about himself.
This kind of time seems so rare these days. Free of the digital technologies that dominate our lives, Elio can probe the world around him and measure himself against it. He’s not worried about promoting himself on social media, so he is able to find himself. The film’s title refers to a form of endearment shared by the two young men in which they call each other by their own names. They name each other themselves and so distance themselves from their confusing feelings. They are able to freely celebrate themselves by celebrating each other. So Elio is able to accept himself, to love himself, by loving another. Loving oneself is a limited kind of love, but it is an essential step in learning to love another. You have to accept yourself before you can accept another’s love. The love Elio finds isn’t only from Oliver. More important than that infatuation, he learns he is loved by others in his life as he is as well.
Call Me By Your Name was directed by Carlo Guadagnino. It’s one of the best films of the year, and I expect to hear its name often during awards season. Movies are rarely so well composed and paced. The acting is quiet and self-assured. The vision is mature and gracious. The film integrates Elio into his surroundings and into himself. If you allow yourself to accept its rhythms (an easy ask), if you are willing to recognize your own muddled feelings in Elio’s, it might reintegrate you into the world as well.