“Call Me by Your Name is a film about how bourgeois people are good at relaxing.” This is something R said to me, and I laughed and agreed because the middle class milieu is a central aspect of the film, an essence that permeates the setting, characters, interactions. In this sense, God’s Own Country (2017) becomes a succinct and complimentary counter-part. Where Call Me by Your Name (2017), directed by Luca Guadagnino, is set in a middle-class academic retreat, God’s Own Country set in rural Yorkshire, where main character Johnny (Josh O’Connor) must tend to the land and animals on the family farm. Class is a locus of identity in both these films, though perhaps more pronounced in God’s Own Country, not least because middle-class lives are often rendered ‘”normal” or worse, “natural” in mainstream cinema.
In both films, homosexual desire is pronounced within the landscape of said class relations, understood significantly through the surrounding physical environment and social interactions which are informed by class dynamics. Whereas Call Me by Your Name situates its subjects in a bourgeois lifestyle that allows for plenty of leisure time and thus, a ripe space for sexual exploration, God’s Own Country specifically reiterates Johnny’s position as a man with responsibilities to labour. This is highlighted in an exchange Johnny has with a (former) friend outside a pub. The friend, who is revisiting her small hometown form university, is read by Johnny as someone who has been able to attend a “posh school”, an opportunity unavailable to him.
I would like to discuss and compare these two specific films and their relationship to class more, but maybe that’s for a future essay. For now, I’d also like to unpack why I think God’s Own Country is such a beautiful film about gay desire that doesn’t fall into trappings of fetishization of assimilation that so much of gay representation on screen is unfortunately prone to.
[From rough to tender: Johnny spits to fuck a stranger, Gheorghe spits to heal Johnny’s wound.]
Johnny’s character is established early on as somewhat inconsistent – perhaps even conflicted. His tenderness and caring whilst looking after animals on his farm is made clear: in an early shot, he is shown reaching into the anus of a cow, slowly cooing to keep it calm. This is then brought into stark relief as he indifferently inserts himself into a man’s anus during a rough sexual encounter in the back of a van. Whereas the animals on the farm are imbued with much personality, at least from Johnny’s perspective, this first sex scene is stripped from fantasy, instead existing as a raw carnal urge that is surrounded by none of the pleasantries or fabrications of romantic engagement. Though the sex act is discreet and private, the scene does not convey a notion that Johnny experiences shame at his homosexuality, but rather that his sexuality lacks intimacy and the pageantry of courtship. After this sexual encounter, Johnny returns to the farm to find that – because his father is suffering debilitating mobility issues after a stroke -the birthing of a calf has gone wrong, leading him to the troubling task of shooting the baby animal. Thus, a relationship is designated between Johnny’s homosexual encounter and a failed responsibility for an animal, as well as signalling a failure of a reproduction.
When Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) arrives from Romania to help with seasonal work on the farm, he is quickly constructed as a reserved but caring, stoic person. The relationship between Johnny and Gheorghe is largely unspoken, but well handled and signalled in the film as both the actors (and the characters) are effective non-verbal communicators.
Their attraction skewers Johnny’s previous demeanour concerning sex, and is understood as loving and tender – at least after their initial copulation which is amazingly shot, integrating them in their rural environment and reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s painting Two Figures in the Grass (1954).
However, whilst Johnny and Gheorghe are centred within a rural expanse, in Bacon’s painting the figures as enclosed. Though one can detect a wall around Johnny and Gheorghe, it is small and does not block the distant urban lights that fall beyond the barrier. The field in which Bacon’s subjects engage appears the be surrounded by a larger wall, one that reaches vertiginous heights that surpass the edges of the frame. Thus, despite the erotic play in the rugged nature, the sexual act is still imprisoned and enclosed.
Part of what I liked about God’s Own Country was the way the film avoided the usual rendering of homosexuality as fraught and tragic in its socially situated condition. Though there is obviously important reasons that we must continue to recognise the varieties of persecution laid upon homosexuals, that Johnny’s parents are not portrayed as homophobic and prejudiced allows for the narrative drive to be focused on Johnny and Gheorghe’s relationship which contains difficulties that are not strictly relegated to their homosexuality. Because there is literally never a focus on sexual orientation (as an issue) in hetero-coupling narratives, it is meaningful that God’s Own Country carves space for a poignant exploration of desire between two men that is complex and not wholly defined by them being gay.