Sufjan Stevens and the Antique Fantasies of “Call Me by Your Name”


There’s a scene midway through Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name in which Mr. Perlman, Michael Stuhlbarg’s archaeologist father character, gives a lecture for one to his visiting research assistant Oliver, played by Armie Hammer. “Not a straight body in these statues,” Mr. Perlman singsongs, flipping through slides of bronze Hellenistic male nude sculptures. “Curved and so nonchalant, hence their ageless ambiguity — as if they’re daring you to desire them.” Oliver, secretly anticipating having sex with Mr. Perlman’s son, Elio, later that evening, responds with an all-too-knowing sideways glance. His expression indicates an awareness of the applicability of Perlman’s statement to the beguiling uncertainties of his own romance with Elio, played by Timothée Chalamet. 

When Guadagnino began developing André Aciman’s novel for the screen, the Italian director hoped to “envelop the movie in the voice of Sufjan Stevens,” as he told Deadline. Originally he wanted Stevens to narrate the film as an older version of Elio, reflecting the structure of the novel. Ultimately, the notoriously private singer declined the voiceover gig, but he did lend his voice to the production in the form of music, and so the desired envelopment turned out to be bit less smothering, but no less symbolically rich. It earned the Brooklyn-based Stevens an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. He performed his nominated track,” Mysteries of Love,” with St. Vincent and Moses Sumney during the award show on Sunday night.

Even without voiceover, Stevens maintains a haunting omniscience over Call Me by Your Name’s narrative, à la Aimee Mann to Magnolia, as themes he’s always explored elucidate those of the film, and vice versa. The oft-discussed “Is it gay?” unknowns of Stevens’s words add another layer to the achingly uncertain romance at the heart of the film — which itself never seeks to formally define its characters’ orientations (Stevens sometime uses male pronouns in his romantically tinged songs, while at other times he uses female pronouns). Taking the songs and the film together, you can see how both cast queer sensuality and the unknowns of first love in the realm of the divine, natural, and utopic. Both also hint at the reasons such a queer utopia can seem like quite an exquisitely fragile place. The idea that Mr. Perlman mentions in the above speech — of an “ambiguity…daring you to desire” — feels relevant to the also gently coded experience of listening to Stevens, with his insinuating, almost ASMR-inducing voice and opaque lyrics that refer to lovers who may or may not just be the son of God.

Stevens’s most biblically queer–ambiguous album, Seven Swans, was released in 2004, and featured songs seemingly aimed at Jesus, about wishing “to be alone with [him]” before concluding, “I’ve never known a man who loved me.” Elsewhere in his catalog you’ll find pronounced odes to Christianity (like his 100 Christmas songs), personal tales of faith (Carrie & Lowells “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”), and references to everyone from Icarus, Pluto, and Aphrodite to Abraham, Moses, and Tonya Harding. “I’m prone to making my life, my family, and the world around me complicit in my cosmic fable.… But it’s all an attempt to extract meaning.… What’s the significance of these experiences?” says Stevens in an interview with Pitchfork. Indeed, this is an artist who once managed to compare a disinterested lover to Poseidon while describing masturbating in bed next to them as they checked their text messages.  

Despite Call Me by Your Name’s naturalism, the film similarly toys with images and ideas of fantasy and myth: Languid desire and minutely sexualized gestures are enjoined with the divine. The movie’s first half-hour builds anticipation through two potential lovers testing out, each on his own, how to translate their subtextual desire into code. If the desire is reciprocated, they’ll understand the queer intimations. If it’s not, the code will remain indecipherable. Oliver momentarily rubs a tense spot on Elio’s back — then, fearing his code too easy to crack, hardens the gesture with a more masculine pat and hails Elio’s friend/hetero love interest, Marzia, to take over. Elio tries to engage Oliver in posturing sex talk about women, either for affirmation or vicarious arousal. When this prying bothers Oliver and creates tension, Elio asks for a “truce,” shaking the hand of the severed arm of a shipwrecked Hellenistic sculpture that Oliver’s holding. These last gestures bring about their first kiss, later that afternoon.

The sculptural handshake is lighthearted, a casual joke, but it is also an invitation — via a bronze arm from a period of history known for the feminization of the male form, the instillation of emotion into sculpture, the embrace of male beauty over Greek classical beefcake hypermasculinity, and a focus on sensual and artful gods like Apollo and Aphrodite over the likes of Zeus and Poseidon. Similarly to Stevens’s lyrical approach to sex, what could be barefaced sexuality, represented on a strictly earthly plane, is mediated through exalted objects and symbols. As with Stevens, it’s a hodgepodge of the ancient Greek, the ancient Roman, the biblical, the contemporary, and the codedly queer.

“There are songs [in Stevens’s catalog] that can be interpreted as laments over unrequited gay love (‘All of Me Wants All of You’), self-loathing (‘Dumb I Sound’), and struggles with one’s sexuality (‘Futile Devices’),” notes Bobby Finger in Jezebel. “Even still, fans don’t know how he identifies, since he’s made the decision to keep that part of his life private.” Searching for this insinuated meaning in Stevens’s symbol-stuffed catalogue was not too uncommon a pastime — as has been detailed in Bobby Finger’s piece and in Vice — for a number of indie-folksy queer teens who came of age in the 2000s, looking for mainstream-adjacent lyrics that might speak to their experiences (I can attest). Many listeners have seen Stevens’s music as often begging the question: Is this about the divine or the dick? In the American imagination, queer tendencies and “God” are pretty mutually exclusive, and what makes this aspect of his music so potent is not that it might be one or the other, but rather that it can seem a rare confluence of the two. He’s an artist who has never sought to uncouple the loftiness of worship from sensuality — exactly the combination that gives Call Me by Your Name its enrapturing quality.

The first time a Stevens song plays in the film — the Doveman remix of “Futile Devices” — is during a moment where a religious symbol acts as the embodiment of desire for another man: Coursing through the movie are references to Judaism, and as this song plays, we also see Elio listlessly hold a chain with a Star of David in his mouth. Oliver is proudly Jewish, and wears a Star of David. Elio’s family is less connected to their Judaism, but once Elio begins to obsess over Oliver and seek to fuse himself with him (as the titular activity of “call[ing] me by your name” suggests), he starts to wear a Star of David around his neck. There’s never any indication that he, himself, has become religious — rather that this symbol denoting Oliver, and Oliver as an expansion of Elio himself, is his new religion.

During this song, a surprisingly straightforward track from Stevens’s otherwise knotty electronic album, Age of Adz, the narrator tries to define ineffable feelings for a man. “And I would say I love you/But saying it out loud is hard…/And words are futile devices,” sings Stevens. The song scores an evening after Elio and Oliver first kiss, as Elio sits in the courtyard under a vined archway, fretting over the thought that Oliver might not be legitimately interested. Guadagnino blurs his face with a warm glow, as though he’s becoming one with his verdant surroundings and the summer evening. Back in his room, the song continues, the montage prolonged to the point of near-preciousness, until we hear Oliver come in next door and let loose a furious stream of piss. Amazingly, the song continues its cooing loveliness, wrapping even the crass masculinity of the piss stream in the track’s — and the movie’s — unwavering soft queer sensuality.

The film’s second Sufjan Stevens song, written specifically for the movie, is the Oscar-nominated “Mysteries of Love,” which plays at the height of intimacy in Elio and Oliver’s brief summer relationship: when they’re alone together. The two take a trip, and are for a scene isolated in nature, calling each other by each other’s names on a mountaintop, next to an almost stupidly heavenly waterfall. In the song, another unremittingly vulnerable acoustic track, Stevens sings, “Like Hephaestion, who died/Alexander’s lover/Now my riverbed had dried/Shall I find no other?” This is the final scene before Elio and Oliver part — both the climax and near-end of their affair. Alexander the Great (whose death happens to mark the beginning of the Hellenistic era, 323 BC) and Hephaestion’s friendship was described, by Aristotle, as “one soul abiding in one body ” — a homosocial and, many claim, homosexual relationship that, like the title of the film, as some deep-divers point out, connotes fusion or disappearance into the other. “I built your walls around me,” Stevens sings, seemingly from Elio’s perspective.

In a stunning essay about the absence, in this gay movie set in 1983, of any reference to AIDS (and the potential lurking shadow of it), Spencer Kornhaber writes in the Atlantic, “The queer utopia Elio and Oliver built is poignantly temporary and limited — both for reasons that the movie spells out, and conceivably for historical reasons that go unmentioned but perhaps not unconsidered.”

Even the beautiful, emotive, and eloquent breaking of the fantasy at the end of the film still feels fantastical in its rareness. As Mr. Perlman emphasizes to Elio in one of the final scenes, the older we get, the less of ourselves we are willing or have to give. For anyone older than 25 (and any queer person who knows the technologized, banalized courtship of apps like Grindr or Scruff), the heightened-to-religious feelings of beauty and its loss expressed by Elio may indeed feel like bygones of a nostalgic ideal of youth. To be so gutted as Elio at the end of the film necessitates having felt something exceptional.

Stevens’s final song in the film, “Visions of Gideon,” scores Call Me by Your Name’s own final moment. Here, Gideon — featured in chapters six to eight of the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Judges (a warrior-prophet who won an unlikely military quest thanks to his sheer faith in God’s help), or maybe just some dude who left an impression on the singer, or maybe an abstraction that could be both — is referenced. The symbolic but ambiguous name is crooned atop the human simplicity of Elio realizing a person came into his life, changed him, and abruptly left. “Visions of Gideon” plays as Elio, now sporting more androgynous Eighties fashions and toying with his self-presentation, stares into his fireplace, becoming, for three or so minutes, an emotive sculpture memorializing a brief moment of perfection where the small, personal, and queerly sensual were also divine.