About half an hour into Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino’s film adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name, a precocious 17-year-old named Elio (Timothée Chalamet) sits at an outdoor club. He’s surrounded by some friends who are gabbing about a duo on the dance floor: Oliver (Armie Hammer) and Chiara (Victoire Du Bois). “Who wouldn’t love to be in her shoes?” one of Elio’s friends swoons. A handsome American graduate student, Oliver doesn’t look all that different from the Hellenistic statues of buff men he’s helping his professor, who’s also Elio’s father, study for six weeks. The music eventually switches to the Psychedelic Furs’ 1982 track “Love My Way,” drawing Elio’s friends to the floor. At first, Elio hangs back, puffing on a cigarette and gazing, intrigued, at Oliver. He smiles, then joins the group.
And there Elio and Oliver are, bopping and bouncing to the music—the only thing, in that moment, connecting the two young men, whose romantic feelings for one another unfurl over the course of the coming-of-age drama. Released as a sneak peek before the film’s November release, this particular scene has become the stuff of memes (thanks largely to a Converse-clad Oliver and his charmingly oafish footwork). But it deserves more serious attention, too. Though other memorable encounters between Elio and Oliver follow, this moving scene is arguably a set piece of Call Me by Your Name. It’s the first real moment of closeness between the story’s two main queer characters, who are testing out ways to nurture their growing intimacy—even if they have to navigate it wordlessly and out in the open.
Guadagnino’s film, set in an Italian village in the summer of 1983, is filled with similarly loaded moments, including a flirty touch during an afternoon volleyball game and a piano recital that’s better described, perhaps, as a coy game of cat and mouse. Yet the dance scene stands out for the way it zooms in on the different layers of tacit emotional wrangling familiar to so many queer people—starting with that earlier remark about Chiara: “Who wouldn’t love to be in her shoes?” There’s a dark duality to Elio’s friend’s words. On the one hand, they speak to an innocent wistfulness felt by the crowd of rapt women ogling Oliver. But her question means something different for Elio, who understands that there’s something not right about his own interest in Oliver. The film takes place a couple of years after the AIDS epidemic began, and deeper cultural anxieties and taboos that society has long had around homosexuality complicate Elio’s already muddy feelings. This conversation isn’t for you, the scene seems to tell him.
Given the times, what can Elio really do about his attraction to a man? Well, he can dance. Maybe not “in her shoes,” but he can get as close to Oliver as possible—a move that feels like an act of rebellion, though the two never quite make eye contact. Virginia Woolf, an author who herself was queer at an even earlier time, once described the transformative and soothing power of dancing. “That is the quality which dance music has—no other,” a 21-year-old Woolf wrote, exquisitely, in 1903. “It stirs some barbaric instinct—lulled asleep in our sober lives. … We dance to drown our sorrows—but dance, dance—if you stop you are lost.”
Woolf’s words could easily apply to Elio and Oliver on the dance floor, where their free-form movement mirrors the choreography of their own searching sexuality. Neither seems to have received any direction or guidance on how to explore his same-sex attraction, but they’re beginning to learn. Hammer recently told NPR that “so much of that scene was about watching someone be totally enraptured and just lost in a moment and enjoying themselves, because that’s one of the things that Oliver is able to do that Elio really appreciates.”
Even the song used for the sequence is significant: “Love My Way” is very much a tune of its era—that brooding, besotted British pop that sat atop the charts in the ’80s and telegraphed a range of queer sensibilities, including isolation, maddening expectation, and unexplored love. (Think of artists like Erasure, the Pet Shop Boys, and The Smiths.) “Love my way, it’s a new road / I follow where my mind goes,” the Psychedelic Furs vocalist Richard Butler sings. “They’d put us on a railroad / They’d dearly make us pay for laughing in their faces and making it our way.” Like the song’s narrator, Elio and Oliver, too, are learning to love their own way, and they must do so without the benefit of a shared script for how to navigate that passion. The lyrics help articulate what otherwise can’t be expressed aloud by either Elio or Oliver, as they dance side by side.
An important sequence near the end of Call Me by Your Name not only winks to that initial dance, but also offers a melancholy vision of what’s to come. As the summer approaches its bittersweet end, Elio and Oliver, at the suggestion of Elio’s suspecting-and-supportive parents, take a trip to Bergamo. On an empty street one night, the couple, drunk and affectionate, move around each other in a wheeling dance, stopping only to kiss; Elio is, for the briefest of moments, “in her shoes.” But then, Oliver detects a familiar tune playing in the distance. It is, of course, “Love My Way.” “You’re missing it!” shrieks Oliver, excitedly, hurrying Elio to hunt down the source of the song that was so central to those first heady summer days. They find the source: Several people are blaring the song from their car. Oliver grabs a woman’s hand and begins to dance with her, while Elio sits and watches them. Though it’s a callback, this sequence could also be read as an aching nod to Oliver’s future: He eventually leaves Elio behind, and later gets engaged to a woman.
Call Me by Your Name grapples with subjects that aren’t altogether uncommon in cinema: adolescence, desire, heartache. Even so, it is unique among coming-of-age romances for how precisely, but tenderly, it portrays the private lives of its queer characters. The at times unspoken longing that ricochets between Elio and Oliver—a lingering stare across the dance floor—is exhilarating and sensuous in a way language isn’t always able to be. A dance can’t last forever, of course, and it doesn’t, necessarily, promise a rosy boy-meets-boy future. But it can leave an indelible mark on the dancers’ lives, long after the night is over, again calling to mind Woolf’s words. “This one night we will be mad,” the author wrote. “What matters anything so long as one’s step is in time—so long as one’s whole body and mind are dancing, too—what shall end it?”