Saturday, December 30, 2017

Call Me By Your Name

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME            B+                
Italy  France  Brazil  USA  (132 mi)  2017  d:  Luca Guadagnino     Official Facebook

A painterly envisioned fantasy of a sunny Italian romance between two young scholars living under the same roof one sun-kissed summer, playing out in languid fashion, using the world of academia as a doorway to get into one another’s pants, seen as an idyllic gay affair taking place within the rural beauty of a small Italian village in the northern Lombardian region, where bicycles seem to lure them away into the undiscovered regions of their imaginations, going on day-long excursions together, discovering tiny roads, each an avenue to unlimited enchantment, literally frolicking in the many diverse swimming holes of the region.  This all plays out like an embellished memory, perhaps too good to be true, as if recalling the most idyllic way to spend a summer rhapsody, where the director of I AM LOVE (2009) seems to make films that always search for that perfect moment.  Less pretentious than his earlier work (actually showing stylistic restraint), this is still an exposé of that unreachable territory that only the super-rich can experience, as who else bides away their time like this, wiling away every summer afternoon as if in suspended animation, in such exotic territory without so much as a single thought shown for what it all costs.  Yet daily, there are sumptuous breakfasts and dinners prepared daily, often eating outside under the trees in an idyllic existence, yet never once do we see anyone shopping for this surplus of food that seems to appear as if by magic.  While there are fruit orchards outside their door, where one can simply pick off the vine to their heart’s content, what we see here is an endless bacchanalian party or feast that seems to never end, but simply extends from one day to the next.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, matters of the flesh go hand in hand with such Dionysian delights, and at least in this film, there are no obstacles in the way, so it’s all fertile territory to explore an idealized gay romance, though this is a gay love story without any traces of actual gay sex, not at all unintentional, by the way, as this is an acclaimed film whose intention is not to turn off a mainstream audience.  Accordingly, one has to acknowledge the intentional inoffensive timidity associated with this choice, as neither character actually identifies with being gay, while it’s an openly gay director (along with gay screenwriter James Ivory) adapting the 2007 work of a straight American author, André Aciman, who grew up in a French-speaking household in Egypt, but never had a gay relationship in his life ("How Can a Straight Man Write So Well about Gay Sex?" by Marritz ...), using straight actors in the prominent roles, so really, this is all a mirage, where nothing is remotely real, yet it’s the year’s most anticipated mainstream gay film, while what is easily the best gay film of the year, Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) (120 battements par minute) (2017) is clearly overlooked, playing for only a single week in Chicago before leaving the theaters, where few have even had a chance to actually see that film, though it won the Grand Prix (2nd place) at Cannes. 

So this film comes with plenty of fanfare, loads of financial backing, and will be around for months, already nominated for a host of awards, where the book was embraced and beloved by gay audiences around the world, living vicariously through the pages, as it elevates gay love to an anointed status, like a special privilege that goes back to the Greeks, where a Western culture of artistic works filling museums around the world embrace the male figure in all its glory.  Accordingly, the lively opening credit sequence does much the same thing, using sculpture to identify the male human anatomy, like pictures from a museum exhibit, identifying what will become the centerpiece of the story.  Despite all this foreshadowing, the film is set in a heterosexual world, where gays are blatantly laughed at and ridiculed in the only appearance of an older outwardly gay couple in the film, that happens to include, oddly enough, author André Aciman, showing the cruel and intolerant mentality of the times.  Designed as an overly sensuous experience throughout, mostly shot in the director’s hometown of Crema, Lombardy, the sumptuous cinematography is provided by none other than Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who shot Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films up until his Cannes Palme d’Or winning UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (2010), most recently shooting the Miguel Gomes ARABIAN NIGHTS TRILOGY (2015).  Set in the recent past of 1983, an era without Internet or cellphones, where the intellect was challenged by serious reading, which is the main pastime throughout all seasons of the year, with characters forever holding books in their hands wherever they go, much as people today remain connected to their cellphones.  At the outset, a young American graduate student arrives, Armie Hammer as Oliver, though he will forever be associated as the Winklevoss twins in David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010).  He is greeted by the host family, including Michael Stuhlbarg as a noted Professor of Archaeology and his multi-lingual wife, Amira Casar (a British actress who speaks French through most of the film), in what is a summer tradition at their cozy villa in the countryside, where the newly arrived guest takes the room of their moody introspective teenage son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet, among the best performances of the year), who moves to a guest room next door, sharing an adjoining bathroom.  At first put off by his overconfidence and perceived arrogance, as the guy is perfect in every way, the attraction of all eyes, including a brief scene playing volleyball, Call Me by Your Name clip YouTube (1:13), or later in the town square on the dance floor to the music of The Psychedelic Furs - Love My Way - YouTube (3:31), which plays again at the end of the film in an entirely different context, where he quickly picks up a young girl closer to Elio’s age, smitten by his good looks.  While they are polar opposites, as Oliver is an extrovert that loves to be the center of attention, Elio is more of a shy bookworm, though he is happily in the midst of a summer fling with a cute French girl his age, Marzia (Esther Garrel), who also comes each summer to visit.

With shirtless male torso’s as the featured attraction, almost always accompanied by wearing shades, the typical means of transport is riding bikes, either into town to run errands or dawdling through the countryside, as “the boys” spend more time together, taking long walks or going swimming in a nearby stream, with the film eventually identifying with a coming-of-age Elio, much of it wordlessly, as he exhibits a stream-of-conscious yearning and starts fantasizing about Oliver, smelling his clothes, even his swimming trunks while masturbating (which he does often), eventually developing an unmistakable chemistry together that does not go unnoticed.  What’s perhaps more surprising is how they are mirror images of one another, with nearly identical intellects, yet Elio is clearly the younger and more tender version, where his youthful exuberance is reflected through impressionistic piano music, playing various versions of a Bach chorale, literally his interpretation of different composer’s styles, Johann Sebastian Bach - Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme BWV 140, W ... YouTube (5:14), or the more jubilant, 01 - Hallelujah Junction - 1st movement - John Adams (Call ... - YouTube (7:10), while various interludes by Satie or Ravel play throughout, offering a dreamlike feel of erupting emotions.  While a few kisses are exchanged, Oliver doesn’t wish to lead the kid on, thinking discretion is required, as he’s a guest.  But all that changes in a brief little scene that hints at more, Call me by your name clip "You know what things"  YouTube (1:30), with Oliver leaving a note to meet him in his bedroom at midnight.  All through the day, time couldn’t be more lethargic for Elio, as it seems to be standing still, never approaching the bewitching hour, so he spends the day with Marzia, actually having sex with her for the very first time, feeling transported and exhilarated, yet all that is just the appetizer for the main course, which is expressed through youthful enthusiasm and a sense of urgency, very much in a Romeo and Juliet mode, enraptured by first love, accentuated by the soft, acoustical indie music of Sufjan Stevens, Mystery of Love - Sufjan Stevens (Full Version) - YouTube (4:06), which adds a poetic tinge in the air.  Strangely, Oliver invites him to call out their own names during sex, which becomes their identifier, a secret code for their intimacy, as if what they’re really in love with is themselves.  This kind of idealized love continues, spending Oliver’s last few days together in a nearby picturesque town where they can go hiking up to a magnificent waterfall, all eloquently presented, where the idea is accepting oneself in harmony with the natural world, rarely coming together with this kind of youthful ecstasy, before sending Oliver back to America on a train.  Heartbroken and unable to contain his feelings, Elio has to reenter the world as a changed person, transformed into something new, but as a kid, he’s not sure what that is.  Arguably the best scenes come near the end, where Elio has a talk with his father, who is fully aware of what transpired, encouraging his son to wholeheartedly embrace the experience, as it’s something rare, especially when both participants are so intelligent and “good,” where he’s urged to “remember everything.”  It’s a stunner of an acceptance speech, equally rare, as this father is accepting of his son no matter what happens, where the final scene is equally captivating, layered in a gorgeous wintry snow falling outside the windows, with a longheld shot of Elio’s consternated face that plays all the way through the end credits, sitting tearfully in front of a bristling fire, where anyone who has lost a love can surely identify, playing out with a remarkably expressive poetic tenderness, with echoes of Sufjan Stevens intensifying the personal anguish, Visions of Gideon - YouTube (4:07).    

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Director Alain Gomis

FÉLICITÉ                  B+                  
France  Germany  Senegal  Lebanon  Belgium  (129 mi)  2017  d:  Alain Gomis      Official site

Winner of the Silver Bear (2nd Place) at the Berlin Film Festival, and among the nine finalists for Best Foreign Picture, this film takes place in Kinshasa, the post-colonial capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, shot with a cinéma vérité style by French cinematographer Céline Bozon, whose handheld shots of the cluttered city streets are transporting, literally immersing viewers into the heart of Africa.  But this is largely a character study of Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu as Félicité, a fiercely independent Afropop singer fronting the Kasai Allstars in a small Kinshasa night club that pulsates with drink and noise and rowdy customers, but music is the lifeblood of the city, providing a feeling of gritty authenticity in a faraway region of the planet.  In fact, the film seems to have been written with this musical group in mind, a composite of five different ethnic groups from the region, each with their own language and musical traditions, seen in performance here Kasai Allstars - "Drowning Goat (Mbuji Mayi)" - YouTube (9:55), but the soundtrack can be heard on Spotify, Around Félicité by Kasai Allstars on Spotify, yet their constant presence throughout the film is such a distinguishing feature, along with a local orchestral group seen elsewhere playing several passages from the symphonic music of Arvo Pärt, from the familiar refrains of Fratres (10:39), heard in films like WINTER SLEEPERS (1997), There Will Be Blood (2007), The Place Beyond the Pines (2012), and The Club (El Club) (2015), to a chilling liturgical work, Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste / My Heart's In The Highlands (2:28), where the stark cultural contrast between Europe and Africa couldn’t be more remarkable.  This music frames the film, adding color and texture to the resilient story of Félicité, a larger-than-life figure whose freedom is challenged by a series of tragic events that tests her endurance, that chops her down to size, leaving her mortally wounded and exposed, never more vulnerable, even humiliated, where her unconventional response is not what you’d think, finding her own way to survive through a minefield of patriarchal oppression designed to diminish her spirit and leave her defeated.  Yet somehow in a landscape of rampant poverty and overt sexism, she endures, where the exhaustive Odyssean journey typifies her perseverance and enormous willpower, summoning untapped reserves of inner strength through the power of mythology and ancestral appropriation, as elements of the surreal mix with a searing social realism, creating an extraordinary synthesis of mind, body, and soul to recapture the essence of her indomitable spirit.  

This is a film where art is viewed as nourishment for the soul, particularly in the use of music, literally providing sustenance to the needy, allowing society’s fallen figures to draw strength from the vast reservoir of Kinshasa music, tapping into a cultural vein as needed, helping fuel their recovery.  At the outset, Félicité is a single mother raising a 14-year old son Samo (Gaetan Claudia), having rid herself of an abusive husband, where she’s free to live the way she wants, on her own terms, independent to a fault.  Her biggest problem is a broken refrigerator, turning to a local handyman of questionable repute, Tabu (Papi Mpaka), as he’s a loudmouth at the club, seen as something of a drunken rabble rouser in the earlier nightclub sequences, but everyone has a right to earn a living.  Promising a new working fridge for $150 dollars, she’s particularly hard on him, despite his burly frame and poetic charm, somewhat dazzled by her oversized beauty, but she notes humorously that to her he’s still a tiny man, rushing out the door with more important things to do.  Yet the next time we see her perform, she whispers in his ear not to get drunk, as she needs his equipment to work.  In this manner, she allows him into her life, amused by his headstrong pursuit of her charms, where she’s willing to give the guy a chance despite his shady reputation as a drunk and a womanizer.  They have an easygoing manner about them, but it’s clear she’s the boss, the stronger of the two, with an acid tongue, yet her fiery resolve is exactly what he adores about her.  The same could be said for the director, as initially this actress was chosen to play a minor role, but Gomis became more and more intrigued by her, fascinated by her irrepressible screen presence, eventually crafting the entire film around her beguiling persona, while at the same time expanding the repressive limits of questionable Western standards in considering a more healthy image of a leading female role.  But her world crumbles when she’s notified that her son was in a serious motorcycle accident, lying in bloodied bandages at the hospital where patients are stacked up next to one another.  Immediately she discovers the Kafkaesque Congolese system of medical care, as it’s provided on a cash up front basis, as he will be moved to a better room, or provided the needed medications, and even the necessary surgery to repair a broken leg only once she produces the money.  This kind of dilemma can bring a family to financial ruin.  Making matters worse, she is fleeced out of the pharmacy money by another woman sitting at the bedside of the neighboring patient, who graciously offers to run the errand for her, but never returns.  Her trust was earned through a con act, pretending to be the relative of a sleeping patient, but once he awakes, he hasn’t a clue who she was. 

With that, Félicité’s spirit is tested like never before, as her son’s health depends on her, racing against time, revisiting friends and family, including the musicians she works with, where her door-to-door mission is similar to Marion Cotillard in Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit) (2014), literally begging others for help, but still coming up short.  It alters the rhythm of the film, adding a despondent tone of gloom, scrounging for what little she can rustle up as she visits the various neighborhoods of the city, offering a panoramic view of the African world, showing bustling streets with plenty of activity, including the brutal beating of a petty thief, becoming crushed when people are unable or unwilling to help her, like her ex-husband who gloats at her weakened disposition, taunting how she used to be so proud, sneering at how “You puffed out your chest.  You wanted to be a strong woman,” feeling triumph now that she is on her knees, reduced to begging, showing no mercy, treating her with utter contempt, blaming her for failing their son, who continues to lie in filthy conditions, becoming a crisis of confidence, enveloping her world with a profound sadness.  Out of pure desperation, having nowhere else to turn, she arrives at the door of a local gangster pretending she has some urgent business with him, who throws her out when he sees what she’s up to, but she clings to the feet of the security detail, getting battered and beaten, wailing at the top of her lungs, causing such a commotion that the man pays her off just to get rid of her.  By the time she finally arrives with the money, she discovers her son’s condition took a turn for the worse, losing plenty of blood, where they were forced to amputate his leg to save his life.  Both she and Samo are heartbroken, falling into a deep depression where dialogue becomes superfluous, as Félicité traverses an abstract spirit world, exploring a darkened forest in a dreamlike nocturnal night with barely visible images, entering a shadow world, much like the Orpheus underground of Jean Cocteau, wading into water, crossing a wide river, eventually encountering a mythical animal, an okapi, on the other side, which she embraces, blending the surreal with the real, as if purging her sins, adding a mystical element of transformation.  In what is largely a realist drama, this is a particularly alluring aspect of the film, adding magical elements that permeate through the recovery process.  With Tabu’s help, he carries her son home from the hospital, but he refuses to even attempt to use the crutches, instead drowning in his own self-pity.  Tabu has a quiet influence, however, adding warmth, being there as a non-judgmental paternal example, not making any demands on either Samo or Félicité, allowing them to make their own way, with Félicité finally acknowledging, “I like your way of being,” even as she finds another woman lying in her bed.  Tolerance has its virtues, as the music heard throughout adds its own healing force, providing a recuperative power that allows both to recover, finally fixing that damned refrigerator by the end, coming full circle, delivering a hard-earned smile.  This is an unsentimentalized film about facing one’s hardships, where even the loftiest souls among us must come down to earth and face their own spiritual resurrection.