Alison Howard, PsyD, M.Ed, CGP interviews
Sonia Kahn, PsyD
about our upcoming MAGPS Cinema Series film,
Call Me By Your Name
Alison Howard: Sonia, I am so glad that we have the chance to talk about this movie! I don’t think I would have watched it otherwise (I don’t see a lot of movies), and certainly not with the same level of interest towards the symbolic meaning. So thank you, both for choosing this movie and for agreeing to talk with me about it.
Sonia Kahn: You’re welcome! Talking about Call Me By Your Name is a real pleasure for me, so I’m grateful that you took the time to watch it—especially since you don’t get to the movies all that often.
AH: As you know, Call Me By Your Name was touted by Rolling Stone magazine as the “Sexiest Film of 2017.” I believe you chose to present this movie for other reasons as well? I mean, I like a steamy movie, but was thinking that maybe you had something else you wanted us to be thinking about as we watch it!
SK: When I went to the theater to see Call Me By Your Name, everything I had heard and read about the movie described it as being very, very good. And because I love a good movie, I was excited to see what all the hype was about. I was also drawn to the film because of its reported “sexiness”—especially since it’s probably impossible for me to say no to two hours of watching Armie Hammer parade around Italy in his swim trunks—but if inviting sensuality and steaminess into our group was my primary reason for screening this particular film, it was completely unconscious! Consciously, I chose the movie for the MAGPS Cinema Series because of how deeply it resonates—emotionally, viscerally, sensually. And by picking an emotionally provocative film, I hoped I’d be setting the stage for a stimulating, post-viewing conversation.
At its core, Call Me By Your Name is a coming-of-age drama—and like other films in this genre, the movie uses its youthful characters (especially the 17-year-old Elio, played brilliantly by Timotheé Chalamet) to explore themes of individuation and sexuality. Ostensibly, this film tells a particular story—a gay story, a coming out story, a closeted story—that I (as a straight, cis-female) would struggle to see myself in. But in the weeks and months after I first saw Call Me By Your Name, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Elio appeared in my reveries and in my dreams. I went hunting through my parent’s basement, digging up old journals and photo albums, and whenever a day with warm air arrived—I listened to the soundtrack in the car with my windows down (as 17-year-old Sonia was wont to do.) I imagined that even if I were alone in my affection for this film, there’s enough to explore about its themes (differentiation and individuation; lust, love, heartache, and heartbreak; sexual identity; family secrets) to guarantee a lively conversation and debate after viewing it as a family (at Lorraine’s home for the Cinema Series).
AH: Yes, and Elio, the 17-year-old main character, has an extraordinary relationship with his parents. It was a focal point of the movie, and I wonder if you can talk a little more about this dynamic?
SK: Late in the movie, Elio shares a scene with each of his parents, which feel like two of the most heart-warming and heart-wrenching scenes I’ve ever seen depicted on film. At the same time, I see Elio’s relationships with his parents as completely romanticized. In the film, Elio is 17 years old and going through a massive period of self-discovery and growth. He is also depicted as unconflicted about his parents. He is frequently shown spending time with them and having a good time doing so. He is also physically affectionate—which we could interpret as being reflective of his cultural upbringing (his mother is French and the family lives in Europe) and/or secure attachment. His parents are portrayed as equal parts affectionate, doting, and appropriately distanced; they somehow manage to be as empathically attuned as they are encouraging of their son’s precocious intellect. And while his father’s monologue near the end of the movie is so full of love and courage that it’s pretty hard not to get choked up listening to it, much of the attunement in the movie comes from his mother, who truly seems like she sees, understands, and accepts her son. Perhaps she is capable of ‘knowing’ Elio because of what she (perhaps unconsciously) ‘knows’ and accepts about her own husband. At one point, when she’s engaged in a political discussion, she describes two politicians as engaging in “the historic compromise.” Hearing this, I couldn’t help but wonder if she’s talking about her own marriage (in the displacement).
AH: Another aspect of the plot is the introduction of Oliver, a “new member,” shall we say. In the beginning of the movie, Elio refers to Oliver as the Usurper. Do you think this was an accurate term to use for Oliver?
SK: Yes, Oliver’s arrival to the group (on both the family level and community level) sure does shake things up! He’s smart, handsome, flippant, outgoing, and confident—a good foil for Elio, who can be all these things as well (minus the confident part). Naturally, his arrival stirs up a lot for the existing members: some are drawn to him, some see him as a threat… some try to test him, and others try to fill their own longing with his image.
AH: The movie takes place in an exquisite part of northern Italy. The beauty of the landscape isn’t relegated to the natural backdrop of the movie. What significance does this beautiful setting play in the love story?
SK: I think it’s fair to describe the director, Luca Guadagnino, as an auteur: his fingerprints are all over this gorgeous film. The love he had for his subject material (an eponymous book by André Aciman) is reflective in how he filmed the setting: the summer of 1983, “somewhere in Northern Italy.” The setting is provincial and picturesque, Roman and secluded. For a story teeming with Grecian nudes and other classical references (a summer internship brings Oliver, a Classics student played by Armie Hammer,
into Elio’s life), it’s hard to imagine a better (yet still subtle) backdrop. The 16th-century villa where Elio’s family summers is enormous yet somehow cozy, packed with food and books, beautiful instruments, and luscious fabrics. The villa is surrounded by verdant, resplendent countryside: trees abundant with leaves and delicious fruits, the sun casting off the town’s piazza and rolling fields of wheat. Guadagnino somehow also manages to imbue the viewer with the physicality of the summer heat—he’s made a hot, humid, sticky, and sweaty film. (Perhaps for some, this will be a welcome mid-winter respite!)
One final note: the setting’s seclusion is also protective. By limiting the characters’ interactions with the outside world, the story is protected from having to contend with (or even acknowledge) the crushing pain and terror of the abounding AIDS crisis. I suspect our audience will have mixed feelings about this and look forward to hearing what this stirs up.
AH: Agreed! Along those same lines, the film is a cultural banquet, inviting its viewers to partake in different languages, food, social mores, attitudes about sex and sexuality… It reminded me of how diversity is so important in our groups: much like the sumptuousness of the cultural offerings in the movie, heterogeneity is both reflective of our society and enriching to our work. I was curious whether that was something you wanted us to pay attention to?
SK: Early in the movie, our protagonists dance to the song “Love My Way,” by the Psychedelic Furs. It’s a catchy, earworm of a song, and the hook gets stuck in my head: “Love my way, it’s a new road, I follow where my mind goes.” Frankly, your question was not on my mind when selecting the movie, but I love that you thought of this, so I’ll follow (where your mind goes) and attempt a thoughtful answer!
Certainly, the film exists on many layers. The film touches on—though never fully examines—myriad societal differences between its group of characters, including nationality, political affiliation, religious affiliation, generational grouping, sexual identity, and mother tongue. And, as you point out, the movie is quite sensual and sumptuous, allowing food, fashion, language (formal/slang), literature, art, and architecture to expound on these themes. That said, whether it ultimately succeeds as a broad social commentary—a meditation on the phrase, “love conquers all,” perhaps?—may be up for debate.
AH: Switching gears a little bit, There is a scene in the movie that takes place at a WWI monument. I see this scene as a symbolic representation of a battle waged and won within Elio to talk to Oliver about what he feels. This scene is on the heels of the story that Elio’s mother poignantly reads aloud to him and her husband about speaking one’s truth. It is at this monument that Elio speaks his truth to Oliver. Can you talk a little bit about the relevance of that moment? It made me think about linkages in our work.
SK: What a wonderful interpretation of the scene! Despite the number of languages spoken in the movie (English, French, German, Italian, Greek, Latin, sheet music…), prior to this moment in the film, many of the most important statements (“I like you,” “I love you,” “I want you,” “I need you,”) are expressed non-verbally, or indirectly using metaphor. In the story Elio’s mother reads aloud (from the French story collection, Heptaméron), a knight wrestles with whether to tell his princess that he loves her and asks, “Is it better to speak or to die?” Should he open up and risk rejection, or stay shut but risk going to his deathbed with unrequited longing?
In the monument scene, Elio risks rejection when he opens up to Oliver and instead is handsomely rewarded for doing so. In moving the story in this way, the film makes a strong case for authenticity, vulnerability and emotional risk-taking; a stance that dovetails with the stance of the group therapist. In process groups, members are encouraged to behave as Elio did in this scene; openness, authenticity, and vulnerability are typically rewarded with increased emotional support and connection to the other members and group leaders. And, much like Elio learns in his relationship with Oliver, by repeatedly risking vulnerability and openness, members are able to strengthen their bonds, develop self-esteem, heal old wounds and traumas, and learn to trust (themselves and others) in a deeper, more fulfilling way.
I also see a meta-commentary in the WWI monument scene. According to Elio (child genius, though admittedly naïve about “the things that matter”), 170,000 souls were lost at the Battle of Piave. Presumably many of the men who died were Elio and Oliver’s ages. In this way, the scene seems to function as a warning: Life is short! Speak up before it’s too late! As we see through the choices other characters make in the film, Elio’s path (to speak) is hardly the obvious choice. It makes me sad to think of where Elio would be if he hadn’t taken this risk. Thankfully, that’s not the ending we get. (Side note: In preparing for this interview, I read that a sequel is in the works…!)
AH: The title of the movie is perplexing, even when made clear. Can you help me understand what it means without giving away the movie?
SK: The title refers to an inside joke between Elio and Oliver, and because it appears as an intimate exchange (“Call me by your name and I call you by mine…”), it’s probably impossible for us to truly understand what this means to each/both of them. That said, my mind is full of associations! I’m reminded of Stephen Mitchell’s (2002) seminal book, Can Love Last?, and his descriptions of romantic love, including the inherent tension between self and other in romantic attachments, and how sex, eroticism, and “falling in love” blur these boundaries. He writes, “the central feature of sexual passion is in the transcendence of the self, of the familiar boundaries of one’s own experiences—the sense of reaching and being reached by, penetrating and being penetrated by another,” (p. 81). In this exchange, Elio and Oliver put the experience of sexual/romantic merger into words (“I am you, and you are me”), and in the same breath, assert their separateness (“your name/my name”).
AH: The father has a great line as he is talking to his son at the end of the movie: “To make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything… what a waste.” I think this is a poignant commentary for the work we do as therapists, and I was wondering if you see it that way too and if you could expand upon this?
SK: Most definitely! I absolutely love when a piece of art validates my work as a psychodynamic clinician, so this scene stirs a particularly wonderful feeling of self-satisfaction. Elio’s father also says, “Now there’s sorrow, pain; don’t kill it and with it the joy you felt.” Here, I see a man speaking of the damage we can do to ourselves when we build brick walls around our tender underbellies; of the damage we can do to our experience of the world and its glory when we numb in an effort to protect against pain and sorrow, grief and loss.
AH: I love that line about sorrow. I think it is the conflict we feel as therapists when people come to see us to feel better but we also have to help them feel and tolerate the pain. And, conversely, if one doesn’t allow oneself to feel the more unpleasant feelings, one cannot feel or express the most pleasant of feelings.
SK: Bingo. Can’t do both without splitting the difference, or numbing one’s self to emotions writ large. I hope you plan to join me for an Italian feast as we watch the movie as a group at Lorraine’s house on February 2nd. Warning: You may want to bring your own tissues!