And long before the emoji, too.
Composite image; background image from Flickr user Celine Nadeau.
Not since the advent of the emoji has the peach enjoyed as much attention as it did in director Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, a sensuous, slow-burning romantic drama, set against the manicured backdrop of the Italian Riviera in the summer of 1983.
In one of the most talked-about movie scenes of the year, 17-year-old protagonist Elio (Timothée Chalamet) succumbs to frustrated, hormone-driven desire and masturbates directly into a pitless peach plucked from his family orchard. He then falls asleep, only to be found by his 24-year-old, not-yet-requited love interest Oliver (Armie Hammer) who discovers what Elio has done and picks up the seeded stone fruit to examine it.
What happens next caused a bit of a stir for Guadagnino, who, after grappling with the decision to include the scene at all, chose to tone it down a notch. (Fun fact: both Guadagnino and Chalamet took it upon themselves to independently test out whether the maneuver would be physically possible). In the film version, Oliver simply licks the fruit despite Elio’s protests; in the original novel by André Aciman, he unabashedly devours the entire peach, causing Elio to burst into tears. It’s chock full of complicated emotions, which can be more fully understood through Aciman’s depiction of the aftermath:
Something that was mine was in his mouth, more his than mine now. I don't know what happened to me at that moment as I kept staring at him, but suddenly I had a fierce urge to cry. And rather than fight it, as with orgasm, I simply let myself go, if only to show him something equally private about me as well. I reached for him and muffled my sobs against his shoulder.
"Whatever happens between us, Elio, I just want you to know. Don't ever say you didn't know." He was still chewing. In the heat of passion it would have been one thing. But this was quite another. He was taking me away with him. His words made no sense. But I knew exactly what they meant.
While even Guadagnino’s tamer version may seem gratuitous and sensational on the surface, the scene marks a pivotal turning point in the characters’ dynamic: In his vulnerability, Elio finds release from the jealousy and resentment he felt towards Oliver, who he sees as both an object of desire and a better, more confident version of himself. And by eating—or licking—the fruit, Oliver shows Elio he’s willing to fall headfirst into the dark truth they had, until that moment, only nervously danced around.
So why not just let them have at it like rabbits? Why is a piece of fruit, deboned and dismembered, the best way to illustrate the climactic apotheosis of their emotional union? Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom have mastered the art of activating mundane surfaces and textures to convincingly communicate the most subtle of emotions. Beads of sweat glistening in golden light drip with the romance of a lazy summer. Oliver’s green swim trunks hanging precariously from the bathtub faucet invite a furtive, lingering gaze. A gurgling water fountain mirrors the bubbling tension of the characters sitting around it. But it’s food—with its capacity to at-once evoke sight, smell, sound, and taste; its ability to collapse the sexual and spiritual into one juicy morsel—that makes for the most effective medium of all.
“Taste is a perfect thing to make emotion resonate—you can synthesize feeling using experiences we’ve all had, long before we even got to the theater,” explains food writer John Birdsall, whose work includes documentation of food’s queer aesthetic. “We’ve all eaten a ripe peach in summer, felt the sticky juice on our fingers and wrists, had this moment of deep sensory overload.” He adds, “The peach is this super-saturated object. Obviously literally, but also as a thing that condenses feelings so nuanced that nothing else in the story could hold them.”
In “The Peach,” a fittingly-named chapter of Al Dente: Madness, Beauty, and the Food of Roma, English author David Winner describes how such overt use of fruit imagery dates as far back as 16th-century Rome to the works of Vincenzo Campi and Caravaggio: “The idea of the fruit became the perfect metaphor for the culture of post-Reformation Rome, a culture whose quest for religious and political orthodoxy frequently led to further uncertainties and where humor alone offered an acceptable outlet for transgressive desire.”
It’s not the first scene in the film where ordinary food takes on added, transitive significance for Elio and Oliver’s relationship. In an earlier episode at breakfast with Elio’s parents, the camera, like Elio, focuses intently on a soft-boiled egg that Oliver irreverently smashes, yolk spilling out out of the shell, before helping himself to another. It’s a humorous moment, but Elio, who doesn’t yet have the emotional maturity to register his budding desire, is both intrigued and alarmed by Oliver’s devil-may-care nonchalance, and the way he exits any situation with an informal “Later” rather than “Goodbye.”
Interestingly, eggs, a symbol of fertility, and peaches, which have represented female genitalia, both have a long and multicultural connection to sexuality that indeed precede the emoji. More broadly, artists have long used food as an organic representation for the erotic—both portraying different foods in art and using the food itself as a medium. Take, for example, the work of renowned sculptor Chris Antemann, whose recent “Forbidden Fruit” exhibit at New York City’s Museum of Arts and Design features Baroque-style porcelain figurines posed in mixed states of seduction and consumption that nod to the original food-and-sin connection in the Garden of Eden. Or consider Juzo Itami's iconic 1986 film, Tampopo, which explores the idea of lust for food in several memorable scenes, namely the one in which a gangster and his mistress pass an egg yolk mouth-to-mouth until it bursts.
“Hunger, and the ‘appetite,’ have always been ways for us to think about and frame our desires—what we ingest becomes a projection of what we truly want. It can often be a nonverbal vehicle to act out and articulate more complicated notions of self and identity,” says Allison Wist, adjunct professor of food studies at New York University. “The ‘appetite’ is often used by artists, photographers, and filmmakers to project other, more intimate desires. Bodily hunger plays this complicated role in representing deeper motivations, notions of self, and physical cravings.”
These types of imagery draw parallels between our impulses to eat and our impulses to fuck, blurring the lines between our two most basic appetites and suggesting that these urges come from a deeply human place within us. To that end, Call Me By Your Name does an excellent task of trading the technicalities and politics of sexuality—the film is totally devoid of traditional labels—for a narrative that emphasizes the spontaneity and inherent nature of desire that is allowed to grow unfettered. Both Elio and Oliver engage in heteroexual trysts, but as viewers, we cease to question whether they are fundamentally gay or straight. Even the use of the peach, a symbol of the female body, is apt in layering the metaphor with further ambiguity.
It’s his most natural instincts that empower Elio to see a fruit and imbue it with lust. At that moment, the peach becomes more than a fruit, and its consumption becomes an act that will bind Elio and Oliver forever. It’s a wordless presentation of emotion that’s sugary, uncomfortable, and, dare I say messy—but isn’t that what love is anyways?