Would Michael Haneke throw a party were Europe to collapse in chaos? The event would likely prevent him from making any more movies—although the clever Austrian does have a way of attracting producers and even Hollywood admirers—but it would confirm all of his worst fears that he’s been packing into every movie he’s ever made, except for his American-set remake of Funny Games. Yet it isn’t difficult to detect in his new movie, Happy End (oh Herr Haneke and his sarcastic/ironic titles), that the whole notion of Continental Drift toward yet another Armageddon is beginning to bore him.
The fact that this is indirectly a sequel, or companion, to Amour is buried in the narrative, and seems ultimately pointless: Jean-Louis Trintignant’s Georges now lives in the splendid home of his daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert, reprising her character under starkly different circumstances), who has assumed control of Georges’ construction firm. In one of the psychologically sicker scenes in recent cinema, he reveals to his emotionally disturbed grandniece Eve (Fantine Harduin, a brilliant young actor who would be perfect in a Haneke-made remake of The White Ribbon—imagine that one) that he killed his wife, this just after he learns that Eve recently tried to commit suicide. In return, in the ridiculous finale, Eve returns the favor by following Georges’ wish and rolling him in his wheelchair into the Atlantic.
The script of Happy End has less to do with Beckett and more to do with plucking various old chestnuts from European family melodramas, including the surefire formula/theme of the sad lives of the kids of the Euro-rich—or as Eve tells doctor dad Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), “you’re so far away.” Anne has her own sour offspring, Pierre (Franz Rogowski, acting with a capital A), who appears to have caused a catastrophic accident at a construction worksite. Haneke stages this in his usual clinical fashion with a surveillance camera shot; other scenes are shot on a cell phone camera, recalling Benny’s Video, but with far less creepy effect. Nearly everything in Happy End is a replay of a previous Haneke movie, but without the necessary punch. The surest sign of this fact is that his great star, Huppert, literally has nothing to do, reacting to things around her and going through the motions. When Huppert leaves no impression at closing credits, something is seriously wrong.
Call Me By Your Name, directed by Luca Guadagnino from James Ivory’s screen adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel, pulls the viewer into a special kind of drift. The power and attraction of drift in cinema is that it seems to be antithetical to the art form’s conventional definitions. Dominant cinema is usually driven by action, time’s compression, suspense, the dramatic collisions of one image against another, the fuel of movement. But like two other great displays of drift this year—Lucrecia Martel’s Zama and Valeska Grisebach’s Western (the latter also in AFI Fest, the former curiously not)—Call Me By Your Name allows space and time for its characters to get lost, and in that condition, stumble upon encounters and discover parts of themselves they never knew before.
The vessel of this self-discovery for Guadagnino is Timothee Chalamet’s Elio Perlman, whose dark point of view guiding Aciman’s novel is gently treated in Ivory’s screenplay. Chalamet injects some of the book’s fire back into Elio as he finds himself drawn impossibly to a young scholar (Armie Hammer’s Oliver), spending a summer researching Greco-Roman art and archaeology with Elio’s university professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg). Unsure how to read the signals, Elio circles around Oliver like a curious, frustrated puppy dog, crawling closer and then dashing away, afraid of the fall he senses is coming. So does the viewer, which is how the particular drift in Call Me By Your Name contains some of the suspense and atmosphere of L’avventura—the push-pull of lovers-to-be, the summery mood of intense light (here, in the Lombardy countryside where Guadagnino lives), the mysterious emptiness of a small-town piazza, even an encounter with fragments of ancient history which the director stages with an ingenuity and a wry comic touch that Antonioni would have admired.
But it’s Chalamet, playing one-on-one games with Hammer, which gives the movie its overwhelming feral strength. Ivory wrote many voice-over narrations, supposedly close to the novel, that are gone now and not needed because Chalamet provides everything for Elio: An actor’s visibly thinking brain, Elio’s curiosity, his devotion to whatever is in front of him at the moment (Oliver, or transcribing classical music he listens to, or playing the piano like a tiger), his sudden mood shifts that yank the viewer this way and that—a quality that recalls Antonioni’s key actor, Monica Vitti (whose epochal and dangerous Red Desert performance is on view at AFI Fest in a double-bill with Blow-Up). Chalamet’s performance never stops, up to and including the closing credits, when Guadagnino’s camera rests on his face in the movie’s most sustained close-up, as he stares into a fire and considers a life without the man who introduced him to love. The camera can’t stop looking at this boy-into-man, who’s now discovered life’s most painful gift: loss.
Quietly, French filmmaker Valerie Massadian is suggesting a different direction for her country’s cinema, which has become increasingly irrelevant. With her debut feature, Nana, and now with Milla, which premiered in Locarno, Massadian combines a commanding feeling for pictorial poetry with sagas about women on the margins. Both movies are titled after their women, and every scene is trained on them, as if they were the only people in the world who mattered. Milla is first seen hanging around with her loser boyfriend, squatting in homes closed for the season. They behave like big kids, and barely know how to live. Scenes lengthen into sequences, each marking out a separate panel of time in Milla’s progress. Interesting characters are defined by how they change, and Massadian observes Milla’s evolution with the love and fascination of a humane scientist like Jane Goodall communing with her chimps in the wild. We don’t even see exactly how Milla grows, but she does, and the movie deepens with each succeeding panel, as if we were gazing across a medieval narrative painting of a Biblical story. What had started as a movie about borderline idiots ends in a mood of beautifully earned poignancy.