Peach & Love: Sensual Symbols in Guadagnino's "Call Me By Your Name"
There is a famous scene in Luca Guadagnino’s Oscar-winning movie, Call Me By Your Name, where the protagonist, Elio, an eclectic, restive 17-year-old, has a revealing encounter with a peach.
He is lying on a dusty mattress in the attic of the family villa, reading. A sultry summer day is exploding outside. In the heat of the afternoon, wearing nothing more than a pair of swimming trunks, he tries to distract himself from lustful thoughts of Oliver (more about him later) by focusing on his book. Except, he can’t focus. He fidgets with the pages while eating one of the peaches he had picked moments before from the family orchard. Juice runs down his forearm as he wolfs down the fruit and carelessly throws the pit on the floor. He finally tosses the book on the side, looks around; grabs a second peach and studies it for a while, pivoting it in his hand, contemplating its perfect roundness. Entranced, he forces a finger into the core. A spurt of juice wets his chest as he manages to remove the pit. He hesitates. Then, aroused and half-bemused, he proceeds to pleasure himself with the pitted peach until he peaks. The scene ends with Elio setting the ravished fruit on the bedside table and as if nothing had happened, falling asleep.
This isn’t the first time a peach is used as a symbol of eroticised sensuality. Long before the emoji, the world's literature and visual arts have taken on peaches to simbolise carnal love (and immortality) in a number of fashions. Their suggestive power knows no boundaries. It’s the shape and the juiciness and the fuzz. But, in some cases, it's also the sexiness of something ripened under the scorching sun, tempting and sweet like a summer love, confined to a time and place outside of which ––for there’s nothing sadder than an out-of-season peach–– it has no reason to exist. This is very much this movie's case. Here ––in the locus amoenus that constitutes the visual backdrop of what is, ultimately, a coming-of-age queer love story–– peaches are everywhere: dangling temptingly from burden branches, piled on the kitchen table, and squeezed into drinking nectar. As the story unfolds and tension builds up, it becomes clear that their presence is far from casual.
The atmosphere in which the movie takes place has a similarly sensual, suspended allure. The setting: It’s the summer of 1983 in the flatlands of northern Italy. In the countryside villa where the Perlmans (an eminent Professor specialised in Greek and Roman archaeology, and his wife, Annella) vacation every year with their teenage son Elio, life flows in a blur of leisure. They sunbathe by the stone pool, drink pitchers of homemade juice, share sumptuous meals al fresco (a topos in Guadagnino’s movies, in which food always plays a catalysing role), and idle in the garden or in the library, reading to each other in a variety of languages while watching summer go by. In this paradise-like setting, a Garden of Eden can’t go amiss. And as a matter of fact, the orchard enclosed within the grounds of the villa resembles such garden very much. Through a series of highly-sensorial cinematic frames, then, we catch sight of countless trees bearing flawlessly ripe fruits ––apricots, peaches (so many peaches!)–– asking nothing more than to be picked. Hints to the forbidden fruit couldn’t be more explicit.
Elio, for his part, spends his time reading books, hanging out with local friends, and transcribing music by ear. He is a classically trained boy who enjoys re-arranging Bach but seems equally plugged into the culture of his time. He dances to the Psychedelic Furs, tunes into Giorgio Moroder and has posters of current rockers in his bedroom. Full of teenage ennui, we see him being conflicted, unsure of his own desires. Music, in the form of either a pressing piano sequence or a contemporary pop hit, becomes the medium through which we get a glimpse of Elio's inner turmoil. It’s as if the soundtrack was there to show us the many sides of his personality. In a particularly poignant scene halfway through the movie, for instance, he's wearing a Talking Heads t-shirt that tells us more about him than what’s coming out of his mouth. “I can’t sleep ‘cause my bed’s on fire; Don’t touch me I’m a real live wire.” It’s exactly what Elio is feeling: electric. And this electricity expands to the world surrounding him.
Everything is going fine, though, until his uneventful summer is interrupted by the arrival of a guest. Every year, Professor Perlman hosts a visiting student for a six-week internship helping him with his academic workload – namely, cataloguing images of Greek statues (hints to "ambiguous beauty" are strong) and following him on sporadic digging expeditions. This year is the turn of Oliver, a 24-year-old post-grad student from America. Tall, smart, self-assured, he soon entrances Elio with his confidence and quickly wins the family over with a flawless etymological elucidation of the word “apricot”. As Oliver explains, "apricot" and "precocious" share the same Latin root. He glances at Elio while saying so, already knowing what he’s handling. One can’t have too many fruit allusions in one movie.
It's interesting to note, while talking etymologies, that name Elio has a strong association with the sun (Helios is the Greek god of the sun in ancient mythology). And because nothing is casual in Guadagnino's carefully crafted cinematic world ––though, of course, all was already set in the book on which the movie is based–– it's safe to say that, just like the peaches and the apricots, the name serves a purpose: that of setting this story even more in the time and space of summer. A time when the sun shines so bright it blurs the vision, and the heat is such that it makes people, including these characters, a bit more bored and horny and daring. Like the sun, Elio is nothing short of a drawing force, always at the centre of people’s attention whether he's playing the piano for a room of guests or jumping on the dance floor or just casually hanging out with a local group of girls. Oliver, however, doesn’t exactly gravitate around him. And it is precisely this nonchalant attitude, combined with a casual dose of charm, that gets Elio hopelessly hooked.
Personality-wise, Oliver feels miles away from Elio's affectations. He’s direct and unfiltered. He smashes eggs (Guadagnino's eye on the overflowing yolk is a sensual triumph in itself) and dances awkwardly and kisses random girls and isn’t afraid to offend his hosts by not showing up for dinner, or by excusing himself with a "later". He is, too, surprisingly flirtations (for a Heraclitus scholar, at least): a touchy-feely instigator. Yet, when Elio reveals his feelings for him –-for it’s him who makes the first move–– Oliver initially retracts. Except, it's a pointless attempt: cards are on the table. From that moment onwards, then, the movie, slow at first, proceeds at full speed through a subtle seduction game that steals the senses, building up so much sexual tension between the two (and the spectator) that a thunderstorm washing out the windows of the villa fails to clear the air. The clumsy, moving, sticky peach scene described above is just the culmination of this electrified atmosphere.
Finally, the flies. Like the peaches, they are everywhere: on Elio’s notebooks as he’s transcribing music, on his bed as he’s rolling restlessly, flying around the breakfast table, and, quite distractingly, in the beautiful closing scene. That they add a touch of realism to an otherwise impossibly idyllic scenery is undoubted. Occurring naturally in the place where the movie was filmed, Guadagnino allowed them to interfere with the character’s preoccupations. But then, if their presence was meant to be literal, perhaps Elio would have paid more attention to the mess he was making with that peach in the attic. Clearly, they work as another symbol, an omen of sorts; a reminder of something rotting at the core, like fruits gone on the wrong side of ripe, and of a season that ––despite everybody's best efforts to pretend otherwise–– is moving towards the end.
And, alas, the problem with summer really is that it ends. The queer dreamland in which Elio and Oliver live their story is fleeting, irrevocably seasonal, just like peaches and the apricots and that catalysing suns that often feels like a deus ex machina. Outside of this warm, welcoming, seductive world both wished would last forever is real life. A life they will have to walk towards, each following their own path, both knowing that what happened to them in the summer of 1983 won't ever be forgotten.