“The great irony of Belle de Jour is that a sixty-seven year old Spanish surrealist has set out to liberate humanity of its bourgeois sentimentality only to collide with the most sentimental generation of flowery feelings in human history,” Andrew Sarris wrote in the Village Voice in the early May 1968. His filing deadline was probably right before the events in France of, you know, May 1968, but even so you could say his overall grasp of the zeitgeist as he wrote those words was likely too inflected by some kind of Summer of Love hangover. All that notwithstanding, I have been reminded of Sarris’ observation by the elaborate praise bestowed upon two recent film releases, Lady Bird, an early-2000s coming of age story with autobiographical elements, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, and Call Me By Your Name, an early-1980s coming of age story scripted by James Ivory from a novel by André Aciman, and directed by Luca Guadagnino.
They are the most critically beloved movies of the year, and while they encompass a certain amount of heartbreak and loss, they each hand the viewer a gratitude list—for family, to be precise—to ponder as the closing credits scroll up. They are relentlessly nice movies. They are sentimental.
In her essay “The Miseducation of Lady Bird” in The Baffler, Lauren Oyler circles around this point a bit. After expressing befuddlement over the fact that she has encountered “old white men,” one “middle aged man” and three young women “sporting leather backpacks and elaborate Nikes,” who were more moved by the film than she was, Oyner homes in on the finale of the movie, during which its lead character Christine goes to church, then calls her mother. While both actions as depicted are, I think, given sufficient dramatic buttressing for them to make both narrative and (for some) emotional sense, Oyner is not wrong to call the speech “unapologetically corny” and “exactly what a mother would want to happen.”
Lady Bird is about reconciliation, and in its world view reconciliation involves recognizing who your blood is. It means finally understanding that it’s a shitty thing to tell your mother that you will pay her back all the money she spent on your upbringing just so that you yourself may have the privilege of never having to speak to her again. Agains, I think the movie sells this point very well. Directorially, Gerwig never puts a foot wrong. Lady Bird is very assured and very much believes in the effects it wants to achieve. One thing it never does—and I understand that on a not insignificant level it is because it’s not this kind of movie’s function to do so anyway, maybe—is question why it is salutary to be a movie that makes you want to call your mother after you get out of the theater.
It’s as if this is a given, just the way everything ought to turn out. And this is not, for instance, what we get from the work of Maurice Pialat, whose ruthlessly unsentimental views of the family lives of children and teens are among the greatest highlights of French cinema. And as soft as Truffaut’s portraits of Antoine Doinel in his adulthood could get, one thing they never featured was any kind of rapprochement with the parents of The 400 Blows.
There is never anything too ugly in Lady Bird; there is almost nothing at all ugly in Call Me By Your Name. When its 17-year-old protagonist, Elio, is confounded by his erotic feelings toward Oliver, the spectacularly hunky academic assistant to his professor father, he is at first barely aware of the support system that’s devoted to helping him figure it out. An American academic seasonally situated in a most idyllic and sleepy corner of Italy in summer, Elio’s dad, Lyle, observes Elio and Oliver’s dance at a benign not-quite remove. Annella, the mother (played by Amira Casar, best known in the U.S. for her work in, um, Catherine Breillat’s 2004 Anatomy of Hell) evinces a concern that’s perhaps disingenuous but deliberately never anything like effectual. The situations and circumscribed worlds of these movies are elaborate demonstrations of the mantra of John Lennon’s anti-revolutionary song “Revolution:” “Don’t you know it’s gonna be/all right.”
Of course all of this speaks, indirectly perhaps, to problems of depiction. Lots of people, I suppose, have movies in their heads about their childhoods. But the worse the things recollected, the harder it is to construct the movie version, in your head or on a movie set. When I was in my final year of grade school I had a growth spurt, and my dad gave me this beautiful fringed suede jacket that he had bought in Spain when he lived there as a teenager. One day I wore it to school, and by the end of the day, about two-thirds of its fringes were gone, picked off by classmates who were not terribly fond of me. I can see how that would play in a movie scene. A few years later, right after turning 14, I went to a CYO dance in my town and there were two women in their early 20s there, who thought I was cute. They were sharing from a flask, and they offered me a few swigs from it, and a bit later on one of them was making out with me, much to the disapprobation of one of the dance chaperones, who was the father of a guy who liked to give me a mild pummeling every now and then. We (the woman and I, not that dude's father) left the dance and went a few blocks down to the house where she lived and she backed me up against the oak tree in front of it and showed me that she was carrying a condom. At the time I had very little idea of what a condom actually looked like, and I knew my parents were gonna be hella pissed off if I came home too late, so I went home. I know what that would look like as a movie scene—pretty funny, possibly. Around the same time another classmate bullied me into a series of not un-violent transactions that I had no real way of processing, which I’m still on occasion anguished by, and which I won’t go into detail about only in part because I don’t…want…to. (When this fellow, who seems not to have thrived in adulthood, got in touch with me again a few years ago, for the first time that I can remember, my stomach seemed to literally sink.) I couldn’t make a movie out of that. Neither Gerwig nor Guadagnino would want to, I suspect. Maurice Pialat, not to flatter my adolescence, would eat it right up.
Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name want nothing to do with this kind of discomfort. Lady Bird is commendably discreet, but perhaps unrealistic, in depicting Christine’s first serious sexual encounter within that time-honored cinematic convention of bra sex. Although the central sexual relationship in Call Me By Your Name is between two men, the only full-frontal nudity in the movie is female. While usurped original director James Ivory has expressed disappointment at the relatively chaste depictions in Guadagnino’s film (and the director himself has offered the craven defense that the “market” wouldn’t bear anything more explicit), most people who’ve written about the movie are pretty cool about it not being, you know, too gay. Jeffrey Wells is hardly alone in his consideration of what the movie is “really” about: “What counts is that the mood and drift of this film isn’t really about straight or gay or anything in between. It’s about 'being there' in every possible comprehension of that term — about sensual samplings, summer aromas, warm sunshine, fresh water and that swoony, lifty feeling, etc,” he wrote in January of this year. Other writers with more investment in being perceived as sensitive to certain cultural drifts have tempered that Universal Vibration take. One straight cis-male critic proclaimed that this picture could take an automatic place in the “Queer Cinema Canon,” which pronouncement has received some pushback from writers who, in some respects understandably, believe the Queer Cinema Canon be decided by the queer. From where I sat, the story as realized by Guadagnino, with its attendant extreme care not to depict the sex explicitly, could be said to iron the queerness out of the situation altogether. The movie opts instead for a soft counterculture “it’s all love and it’s all good” perspective, articulated in the much-praised speech that Michael Stuhlbarg, as Lyle, does deliver with spectacular care near the movie’s end. Even Marzia, the French teenager whom Elio uses then throws away like an old dishrag (Esther Garrel, the aforementioned female nude), is full of not just forgiveness but congratulatory fellow-feeling with respect to Elio’s self-actualization via heartbreak.
In a sense, then, this is the furthest thing from a “queer movie;” its whole project is to de-queer Elio’s mode of being. That’s the point of the film’s final shot. Yes, he’s heartbroken and crying, but there’s “beautiful” music, he’s literally crouching in front of a fireplace (the hearth!), and behind him his family, while giving him his space, is preparing a sumptuous holiday meal.
As for Lady Bird, the movie comes with its own feel-good sequel, in the current person of Gerwig. In interviews and on television shows we have access to her story. Not just of her life on her own, but of the making of the movie: the winsome letters she wrote to musicians explaining how much her otherwise–perhaps-much-costlier-to-license song selections were so important to her. The way she was able to hire a cinematographer and merely instruct him to make the film “look like a memory,” which certainly beats having to learn how to do that oneself. How she wore a prom dress while filming the prom scenes. When Matthew Maher turns up near the movie’s end, playing a character who gives Christine a crucial bit of information, I thought of the very particular brand of clout that allows a filmmaker to hire one of the best actors on the New York stage for the express purpose of having him say one word.
These are movies where everything’s going to work out, because “at the end of the day” everybody shares the same values. A rather more tough-minded movie about family was made in America in 1937. There are no real villains in Leo McCarey’s Make Way For Tomorrow, but the tragedy that ultimately befalls its central couple, a pair of seniors who are forced to separate forever, comes from their having raised their now-adult children in an American values system that all but obliges those children to forsake them. Lady Bird posits a family dynamic that’s fraught, but eventually all falls on the same side of provisional ideology, while Call Me By Your Name posits a paradise in European remove where romantic loss is ameliorated in that spectacularly nurturing hearth. That these cozy fantasies are animating so much enthusiasm is, as they say, very telling about the current cultural moment.