Michael Stuhlbarg’s poignant monologue from ‘Call Me By Your Name’ explained
If you’ve heard rumblings about any particular “Call Me by Your Name” scene, it’s either Timothée Chalamet having sex with a peach or The Monologue.
Those familiar with the movie, or the celebrated André Aciman book on which it’s based, will understand these references.
It’s the moment that clinches the film, delivered by Professor Pearlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), the father of 17-year-old Elio (Chalamet), who falls for a graduate student named Oliver (Armie Hammer) during one blissful, bittersweet summer at his family’s Italian villa. Elio has just bid Oliver adieu, and Pearlman consoles him with delicately chosen words that are the envy of every queer kid who ever longed to hear a parent say, “It gets better.”
Director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory lifted the monologue almost word for word from Aciman’s text, excising only a few sentences. Even some of Aciman’s scene-setting prose finds its way into the script’s parenthetical directions, guiding the conversation as it unfolds on a couch in Pearlman’s dim study. “His tone says: We don’t have to speak about it, but let’s not pretend we don’t know what I’m saying,” for example, appears in the novel and the screenplay, ensuring they mirror each other’s dulcet timbre.
Stuhlbarg’s speech is best underscored by these words (punctuation and capitalization are the script’s):
When you least expect it, Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot. Just remember: I am here. Right now you may not want to feel anything. Perhaps you never wished to feel anything. And perhaps it’s not to me that you’ll want to speak about these things. But feel something you obviously did.
You had a beautiful friendship. Maybe more than a friendship. And I envy you. In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, to pray that their sons land on their feet. But I am not such a parent. In your place, if there is pain, nurse it. And if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out. Don’t be brutal with it. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster, that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything ― what a waste!
Two sentences nixed from Aciman’s rendering: “Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is no better,” and “Most of us can’t help but live as though we’ve got two lives to live, one is the mockup, the other the finished version, and then there are all those versions in between.”
During an interview ahead of the movie’s limited release in November ― it opened in wide release on Jan. 19, a few days before netting four Oscar nominations, including for best picture ― Stuhlbarg told me he delivered the monologue two different ways. His first take was more emotional, more impassioned; the second version, which Guadagnino “rightly” opted to use, was “a little more direct.”
On paper, the speech sounds very literary ― appropriate for an academic like Pearlman who studies Greek antiquities, but still difficult for any actor to deliver with an organic cadence.
“You never know how a piece of text is going to live in you when you try to absorb it for all of its weight,” Stuhlbarg said. “I don’t think there was a conscious choice on my part for it to be any more or less professorial. I think the text does a lot of that for me, so maybe I was just concerned with it coming from a true place, and that he was choosing his words carefully. In another actor’s mouth, it would be different. ... I think the language speaks for itself. I tried to let it live in me over the course of the five or so weeks that we had, because we shot the movie in chronological order. [I wanted] to let it resonate with me that way I thought it could be said.”
Throughout the scene, the camera remains mostly trained on Stuhlbarg. He taps a cigarette on an ashtray perched on his lap and picks up a tumbler of whiskey to cut the silence between sentences. Sometimes he peers down, as if to reflect on his own youthful memories, but he largely holds Elio’s teary-eyed gaze. “Elio is dumbstruck as he tries to take all this in,” the screenplay notes, much like the novel’s first-person narration of the same sentiment: “I couldn’t begin to take all this in. I was dumbstruck,” Elio says.
“How you live your life is your business,” Pearlman continues as the film’s gentle piano score kicks in. “Remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now there’s sorrow. Pain. Don’t kill it and with it the joy you’ve felt.”
A pause, Elio nodding as he absorbs the advice.
“We may never speak about this again,” his old man concludes. “But I hope you’ll never hold it against me that we did. I will have been a terrible father if, one day, you’d want to speak to me and felt that the door was shut, or not sufficiently open.”
In Stuhlbarg’s mouth, Pearlman’s words are poetry ― vestiges of a weathered existence and guidance for a life not yet touched by the wisdom of adulthood.
The scene reflects Guadagnino’s intentions for the film. Before the shoot began, “we all sat around his dining room table and read the screenplay together,” Stuhlbarg said. “That was all the rehearsal that some of us had. [Guadagnino] said, ‘I want this to be a story of love and light and buoyancy and fun, to be reminiscent of those idyllic summers that, if we’re lucky, we have when we’re young. Our eyes are opened, and perhaps we fall in love for the first time in a deeper way.’ That idea infected the way we told the story, and it made it such a joyous experience in a way that I never would have expected it to be.”
Stuhlbarg, who appears in two other best picture contenders (“The Shape of Water” and “The Post”), didn’t receive the Oscar nomination he deserves, and “Call Me by Your Name” produced middling box-office returns in wide release despite the fawning praise it received.
Regardless, his closing scene is a master class in acting and writing. It’s what sets this apart from most gay stories, where characters are judged or punished (by parents, peers, spouses, mentors, bullies) for their sexuality. Indeed, every graceful pause in The Monologue is calibrated to capture the movie’s optimism. It’s both heartbreaking and uplifting.
“I love the story and was so grateful to be asked to participate in it,” Stuhlbarg said. “It does seem to be having a lot of resonance and relevance and to be moving people, which is all you can hope for, really, because you never know what’s going to happen when you make something. And in different hands it would be a different telling ― it would be a different story. I think Luca’s a master and has masterfully articulated the story he wanted to tell.”
The Gayly. February 3, 2018. 11:21 a.m. CST.