Colour in Call Me By Your Name

Updated: May 16, 2020

It is rare that a film gets better the more you watch it. For me, Call Me By Your Name is that film; the little things each scene contains feel like a reward when I spot them.

Use of colour has been a satisfying art form I have noticed re-watching this film; the beauty of it, I have realised, can be broken down for hours after its initial viewing. When you notice how the colours intertwine and have deeper meanings, you can have a deeper understanding of this beautiful film.

Call Me By Your Name tells the story of a poetic and powerful romance between seventeen-year-old Elio and his father’s apprentice Oliver in Northern Italy. The film, as a whole, is portrayed beautifully, capturing the haze and beauty of scenes as described in André Aciman’s novel. The music, composed by Sufjan Stevens, is perfectly paired with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, as well as the colourist Chaitawat Thrisansri. Colour is a huge part of the beauty of Call Me By Your Name and Thrisansri worked hard to capture the perfect dreamlike effect of the film.

In an interview with ‘Lift Off Global Network’, Thrisansri states how he studied the light of Italy, when it was dawn and dusk. The colour shot was captured naturally and only a small amount of colour balance was adjusted post manipulation; these feel evident in scenes of organic natural light. An example of this is in the scene after Elio takes Oliver to ‘his place’: a small spring where he likes to read books.

In this shot, they are laying within the grass, their neutral coloured clothes fitting the organic nature. There is a warm tone which imitates the lazy, hot atmosphere of Italian summer. It captures a moment many people may relate to - being in a warm country relaxing, the heat of the sun making you feel drowsy - and by seeing this shot on screen, you are taken back to that feeling. This feeling is related to Elio being with Oliver, and is lost later in the film when Oliver leaves.

André Aciman discusses colour within the book in reference to Oliver’s swimming trunks, with each trunk representing a different mood or feeling that Elio thinks Oliver will have that day or give off. Green is “acquiescent, eager to learn, eager to speak, sunny”; red “bold, set in his ways, very grown up, almost gruff and ill-tempered”; yellow “sprightly, buoyant, funny, not without barbs”.

These colours are recognised by the cinematography, where the camera follows all of the pairs of trunks that have been chucked in the bath of their shared bathroom, imitating the book when Elio is noticing that each pair comes with their own ‘personality’.

The description Elio gives to the colours of the shorts greatly resembles a long history of colour meanings, e.g red meaning angry. This suggests it is less his instinct that is relating Oliver’s mood to the shorts, but a long history of social influence. On the other hand, Aciman may be indicating that Oliver is also aware of these ‘colour meanings’ and is purposefully wearing the shorts to match his mood, for Elio, himself and the audience too. The audience can build their own interpretation of what each colour of shorts mean.

Throughout the film there is a warm pastel tone to all of the shots, even in the shots at night there is still a pastel feel to the colder colours.

The colder shots at night are not only reflecting the cold atmosphere of he moon and night time, but also symbolising Elio’s fears. Especially at night when he is most afraid of what Oliver is or isn’t doing, he cannot see or figure out his own emotions as well as Oliver’s, and is usually left in the dark to overthink. One of their most intimate moments happens at midnight, when Elio is told “grow up, I’ll see you at midnight”. Night is seen to be a safe place where they are isolated from the others in the house and can be alone together. There is a cold tone, understandably because of the night time, and it doesn’t seem too out of touch to the rest of the film near that point.

There is, however, an obvious cut off of the warm tone when Elio and his family come back in the winter. Before that, there is a scene in which his father, Samuel Perlman (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) tells him he knows everything, and suggests to him how to deal with Oliver leaving. This scene has a truly beautiful message, telling Elio not to try and forget everything. He says “to feel nothing as though not feel anything- what a waste!” and “Right now, there is sorrow, pain - don’t kill it, and with it the joy you felt”. His words feel so powerful to Elio as well as the audience, and are emphasised by Mukdeeprom’s cinematography. The scene has a noticeably cold tone, which contrasts the rest of the film, despite there being orange lamps on in the room. This reflects Oliver being gone, however him still living on as part of the house. Elio has, however, come to terms with the fact Oliver is gone, and it is at that point where he could decide to numb himself down or accept the pain and grief. His father’s speech tells him to accept it and grow, an interpretation could be to not suddenly kill the ‘light’ they had, and switch off the lamp.

The following scenes are set in the winter, with cold tones and white and black being the main colours for a majority of the scenes. After the phone call with Oliver in which Elio is reminded of what they had, as well as told that Oliver is getting engaged, Elio sits down in front of their fire and quietly thinks about everything.

The fire contrasts the dark tones, and may represent Elio being reminded of the ‘light’ they had. A fire could be interpreted to be a reminder of their relationship, a source of light (like the lamps) however fire may be seen as a more natural light source. A fire would not able to quickly be switched off and forgotten about, unlike a lamp; a fire slowly burns away, and usually has small embers of light that last for a long time. Elio watching this fire burn represents him watching what they had melt away. It leaves the audience questioning how long this fire will last, and when, or if, the fire will ever be re-lit.

I urge you to watch this film again and notice the colours and their meanings. Watch how the tones and colour pallets grow and shrink throughout it and enrich the narrative.

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