CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Love is ultimately an act of discovery in Call Me By Your Name, the latest film from Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash), emotions finding themselves externally manifested in a confusing, sensorial swirl of desires and textures. Based on the André Aciman novel of the same name, the film centers on Elio (newcomer Timothée Chalamet), a young, Jewish Italian-American spending the summer of 1983 in a Northern Italy villa near the archeological site where his father is unearthing ancient Roman sculptures—his are days largely spent swimming, reading poetry, and transcribing music until his ennui is interrupted by the sudden appearance of “usurper” Oliver (Armie Hammer), a tall, blonde, near-perfect physical specimen and twenty-something American grad student boarding with the family while he does work-study with Elio’s father.
What ensues is a rich, intoxicating back-and-forth between Chalamet and Hammer, at first in conflict with one another over Oliver’s charmingly disruptive confidence, and then gradually getting a feel for the space, their positions in it, and then eventually each other. It’s the cliché First Love story so honestly and vividly realized it’s impossible not to be swept up in its passion. Guadagnino directs with his usual romantic eye for beautiful places and people, here however it takes on new meaning as the lovingly filmed architecture and clothing occasionally finds itself outdone by the simplicity of the human form—skin, sweat and hair take on an almost mythic quality as legs find themselves entwined, bodies posing like sculptures, arms in motion to the groove of music.
Chalamet is excellent as Elio, it’s a vulnerable & confident performance that nails the most important part: making his awakenings both sexual and otherwise feel entirely organic (a moment early on where he puts Oliver shorts over his head and his body naturally extends into the act is wonderful) but it’s Hammer who walks away with the film, possessing every space and person that comes within his orbit it’s that rare kind of magnetic performance the camera has a difficult time looking away from. Together they radiate tenderness and sensuality, the emotional weight of this story tacitly coded into the form—communication primarily through fleeting touches and glances, a shot of a foot in water later mirrored in feet embracing, and then again later in a waterfall, the sequence where Elio’s watch keeps catching the camera’s attention because a casually planned meet-up can’t leave his mind, these momentary flourishes complicating and layering onto each other is the film at it’s most powerful. “Remember everything.”
Based on an old Coen brother’s script, George Clooney’s latest directorial effort Suburbicon is an odd misfire. Clooney, a regular Coen collaborator (O Brother Where Art Thou, Burn After Reading), has a knack for the kind of performance an old-school farce like this needs—consider the uniformly excellent performances from the film’s central supporting players like Glenn Fleshler’s angry mob goon, Jack Conley’s relaxed detective, and especially Oscar Isaac’s fast-talking claims investigator. Each of these characters and performances feel like they’ve stepped out of a Billy Wilder (did someone say insurance claim?) or Alfred Hitchcock film (see: Julianne Moore’s wonderfully unhinged evil twin sister) and into one of the Coen’s paranoia comedies from the 90s. The film comes alive with these performances and cinematographer Robert Elswit’s sumptuous rendering of 1950s colors and sheen—Oscar Isaac in particular brings so much energy Elswit seems forced to mimic it, there’s an amazing high-angle pull out while Oscar Isaac screams that is probably the films highlight. It’s like a Coens take on Double Indemnity.
However Clooney and screenwriting partner Grant Heslov aren’t satisfied with just being an energetic farce, and feel obliged to include an Important, Timely subplot about an African-American family’s abuse by the local white suburban community. The movie comes undone every time it clumsily transitions from absurd thriller to social conscious picture (which is a lot) and even its climax, a cross-cutting implication that white violence and safety go hand-in-hand, is theoretically sound but totally misguided in execution. Clooney’s need to will this into a Serious Issues movie is mostly embarrassing, and mutes a lot of the fun to be had elsewhere, especially when things get violent. Damon in particular, and his son played by Noah Jupe, get caught in the middle of these two opposing tones and are forced to play things straight in order to belong in both and end up mostly lost at sea. The film’s final two scenes exemplify this, as one of the film’s more chilling moments is hilariously undercut by some expertly placed dramatic irony, and then in the immediate aftermath tries to transition the brutal comedy into some weird Come Together moralizing. If there’s a point to be found here about whiteness it’s lost on everyone involved.
If you couldn’t already tell by the fact that this is a Michael Haneke film, the title is indeed ironic. Happy End isn’t a happy film, nor does it really have an ending, instead opting for a series enigmatic vignettes about bourgeois arrogance and misery. (Surprise.) What’s fascinating is that in typical fashion for the filmmaker this appears to be a film aggressively averse to being enjoyed—this is a film that opens with animal cruelty captured on a 13-year-olds snapchat, the implication at first the age-old “social media is rotting society’s moral compass” bullshit, but how the thread eventually develops is something more comedic and surreal than it suggests.
Maybe the most genuinely funny film Haneke’s ever attempted, it plays as an absurd epilogue to Amour, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert returning as the heads of the Laurent family, former industry titans who now spend most of their days putting out fires their privileged family members set out of stupidity, ignorance and (as in the case of its youngest member) maliciousness. The central threads here involve a serial cheating father, a disruptive, alcoholic son, a sociopathic granddaughter and a suicidal grandfather—the climax, and most interesting of which is how the last two eventually coalesce. The brilliance of the film’s opening moments is that they convince you to be on guard for sudden bursts of violence at any moment, Haneke looking for the audience to anticipate, even crave it, meanwhile it ultimately feeds a silly melodrama about disintegrating relationships, which is why even though most of its attempts at commentary on technology and politics fall hilariously flat (or simply don’t develop at all, like a subplot involving a workplace accident and labour strike), its eventual conclusion is still oddly moving in a way only Haneke could deliver. Hard film to recommend, but if you can get on its wavelength it’s not without value.
Ruben Östlund over the course of a number of shorts and now 4 features has carved out a unique space for himself, part absurdist filmmaker, part sociologist/behaviourist (like Stanley Milgrim observed through the lens of Roy Andersson), however it wasn’t until the magical Force Majeure that all his ambitions coalesced into a truly sublime work. Force Majeure is a film that uses a broad marriage/family vacation set-up to reckon with how societal expectations conflict with our primal nature when a father abandons his family in a disaster situation—easily one of the most cutting comedies of recent memory and probably one of the finest films of the decade, I recall it now because of just how utterly baffling his latest film The Square is.
It’s got all the trappings of another Östlund masterpiece: the condescension and arrogance of the elite class, trying to solve class-based issues with modern art, meanwhile when even minorly inconvenienced they revert to the savagery they deny they’ve built their wealth and power on. The issue is that this is material for a an essay or a short stretched to a cartoonish 140 minutes, so for every well-conceived, hilariously-framed sequence (and there are quite a few: like a hysterical post-sex argument or the climactic artpiece involving an actor gone literally primal) there’s five more weirdly-timed, troublingly simplistic and reactionary ones that find Östlund operating in a realm he’s previously avoided: straining for larger thematic importance. Fredrik Wenzel’s compositions are beautiful and there’s some great performances (Elisabeth Moss is delightful, and gets to show off real comedic timing chops) but both are underserved by the shortcomings of Östlund’s script.
The Square is genuinely fun when it’s operating in the realm of physical, behaviour comedy but the second it starts using characters as satirical mouthpieces things get dire very quickly—a wonderfully bizarre subplot involving a viral marketing ploy, for example, is quite good until a press conference sequence that plays out like Ińárritu’s embarrassing art critic scene in Birdman. In those moments The Square feels like a film that thinks its pushing boundaries on touchy topics, but is much closer in resemblance to the worst tendencies of South Park, its proclivity toward the lowest-hanging fruit and “both sides, though” philosophy; there’s even an extended Tourette’s gag, if you think I’m joking.