Andrea (Luciano Piergiovanni) may only be a fifteen-year-old Milanese schoolboy (“Let’s say sixteen,” he suggests), but he prefers to view himself as a man of the world, especially when it comes to romance. “Every guy has his own technique for picking up girls,” he explains. “Some feign indifference. Some are very passionate, but that’s not in at the moment. Some act tough, but most guys act sad — who knows why, but falling in love makes them sad and surly. They look preoccupied. My technique, very little used but perhaps the most effective, is to use ideas and self-control. I talk and talk until they’re totally confused, and the trick is done.” Although Ermanno Olmi’s 1967 made-for-television movie La Cotta (or, in English, The Crush) runs a mere forty-nine minutes, Andrea manages to do a good bit of talking in that time; he also proves that he’s not immune to total confusion himself.
Upon spotting a new girl named Jeanine, Andrea is immediately intrigued. As he learns from his friends, Jeanine has come to Milan to live with her grandmother after suffering a broken heart in her hometown of Paris. “She had a crush on a forty-year-old man. You’re too green, I’m afraid,” one of them tells Andrea — a warning that fails to deter him. Before long, he’s won Jeanine over, and the two become a couple. He proposes that they spend New Year’s Eve together, and even though she agrees readily enough, he feels the need to solemnize their plans. “I give you my word that I won’t make any other arrangements. How about you?” he asks. “All right,” she replies with considerably less gravity.
As anyone who’s seen Olmi’s Il Posto might guess, Andrea’s night doesn’t exactly turn out as he intends. In a memorable scene from that 1961 film, the young protagonist, Domenico, attends his company’s New Year’s Eve party in hopes of seeing his own crush, who had told him that she would go if her mother would let her; she never does show up. Andrea, too, is disappointed. When he goes to pick up Jeanine, already running late, she doesn’t come out to the taxi. He then tries calling her, but it’s her grandmother who answers and informs him that Jeanine went to a friend’s house hours earlier to get ready for the party. She gives him the address, so he hires another taxi and makes the rather lengthy, fog-impeded journey to the friend’s house — only to discover that Jeanine was never there at all.
How Jeanine really spent New Year’s Eve is never revealed, but it is blatantly apparent that she doesn’t take her relationship with Andrea as seriously as he does. For all of his ostensible sophistication and modernity — exemplified by the time-saving system he creates for pairing up couples, which he describes as “an industrial concept applied to love” — he proves to be a hopeless romantic. There’s a certain sweetness about this, especially when, after kissing Jeanine, he wants to start over from the beginning, court her properly and experience their first kiss again. On the other hand, it leads him to expect far too much from the objects of his affection. “Do you think we’ll stay together for a long time? Would you stay with me forever?” he asks Jeanine when their relationship is, at most, a few days old. (She answers his questions with a shrug and a nod, respectively.)
His romanticism, coupled with a vivid imagination, also causes him to live in a fantasy world, at least to some degree. Throughout his New Year’s Eve search for Jeanine, Andrea keeps envisioning various ways the night could play out, good and bad, to the point where it’s undoubtedly as difficult for him to separate fact from fiction as it can be for the viewer. He even puts his own dialogue from an earlier scene in Jeanine’s mouth, making her say that she wants to start over and court him.
By the time Andrea arrives at the friend’s house and finds that Jeanine hasn’t been there, it’s past midnight, and all he wants to do is go home. The friend’s older sister, a young woman who appears to be in her early twenties or so, takes pity on him and encourages him to join the other teenagers at the party going on in another room, but he refuses, fearing that they’ll all know he’s been stood up. “I don’t want to look like a fool,” he admits. His veneer of confidence gone, his insecurity and vulnerability come through as he opens up to the young woman. “I always say it’s the girls who fall in love with me. But I fall in love too. What crushes!” he says, exhibiting a surprising measure of self-awareness.
Still, that doesn’t prevent him from developing warm feelings toward this sympathetic new acquaintance after a few minutes’ conversation, and when he asks if she would mind if he imagined himself kissing her, she gives him some much-needed advice:
I’d be lying if I said I would. But I don’t want you to do it, because it’s absurd and useless. You see — and forgive me if this is very personal — even though at times you feel like a man, you’re still a boy. And your behavior proves it. You’re a romantic boy, like all boys your age. Like all of us were at your age. But life isn’t made just of dreams. We can’t let our imagination construct an ideal love, disconnected from reality. That’s why disappointment is so common, and sometimes so terrible. In a few years, you’ll realize that love has to be discovered and created a little at a time, one day at a time, through even the smallest of actions.
One gets the feeling that she knows what she’s talking about: not only is she levelheaded, practical and intelligent, but as both Andrea and the viewer have observed, she’s very much in love with her fiance, who’s away doing his military service.
The thing is, the other adults whom Andrea encounters don’t seem nearly as sensible or happy in love as she is. On the street, he witnesses a man slapping a woman, then meets an older couple sniping at each other while waiting for a taxi. Later still, the young woman’s parents return home from their own New Year’s Eve outing, at which the wife was humiliated by her drunken husband and his craving for youth and excitement. The arrival of the new year emphasizes the inevitable passage of time, but, as the film suggests, it takes more than that to obtain wisdom, much less to find happiness. Even the young woman herself isn’t sure if she and her fiance will ever marry. “It depends on a lot of things. We’ll have to see how he feels when the time comes,” she says.
During their trip to Jeanine’s friend’s house, Andrea’s taxi driver complains about the weather conditions. “The first man to devise a way to drive through fog will be a millionaire, believe me,” he says. “We’ve made so much progress. We go all over. We go to the moon. But no one has discovered how to drive through fog.” Perhaps it’s the same with love: no one, young or old, knows exactly what they’re doing, and all they can do is take it a step at a time. If Andrea isn’t radically altered by his experience, at least he might be a bit more prudent next time he develops a crush; he probably won’t have long to wait.