Told through body and land: God’s Own Country

Joanna Di Mattia

In Francis Lee’s soulful debut feature, God’s Own Country (2017), an intimate camera tethers us to surly protagonist, 24-year-old Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor). Johnny works on his family’s small farm in West Yorkshire’s Pennine Hills. His dad, Martin (Ian Hart), is incapacitated from a stroke, leaving the majority of the physical work to Johnny, while his grandmother, Deirdre (Gemma Jones), takes care of Martin and the house. Everyone is invested, as they say, in simply “getting on with it.”

At the end of a day tending to the animals and maintaining the property, Johnny has little left to give to anyone, including himself. Most nights, he guzzles pints at the local pub, drinking to get drunk. Before we see him in the film’s opening scene we hear him retching into the toilet. Later that day, Johnny attends a cattle auction and engages in wordless, efficient sex with a man whose name he has no interest in knowing and whose mouth he doesn’t want to kiss. At the table, Johnny shovels his meals, functionally. We quickly understand that his life is devoid of any real intimacy or sensual pleasure.

With a focus on the tactile dimensions of its locale and its characters’ bodies, God’s Own Country depicts queer desire with emotional authenticity within a landscape and milieu — rural, working-class — that we don’t often see flourish on screen. Together with a suite of other queer-themed films at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August this year, including Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (2017), God’s Own Country develops a complex aesthetics of touch that invests the queer male body with subjectivity, individuality and an emotional life. God’s Own Country is boldly carnal but also advances a visual language attentive to sensuality. Given its location, it is an enormously physical viewing experience, comprising textures of wind, birdsong, grass, mud, close-ups on working hands and on desiring skin. What emerges is akin to a queer eroticism of the open land.

This eroticism is encouraged by the camera’s proximity to Johnny, which enables our acute attention to any change in his experience of the land and his body when it comes. His greatest test arrives in the form of Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian migrant worker hired to help with lambing season. Johnny gives Gheorghe a hostile welcome, calling him “gypsy” and practically shoving him into the caravan he’ll be sleeping in. But when they spend a few days alone together with the sheep at an outer paddock, sleeping side by side in an abandoned cottage, a romance develops. Gheorghe, also a man of few words, nevertheless provides Johnny with a new language for expressing desire and experiencing pleasure, which ricochets throughout all aspects of his life.

God’s Own Country

While we understand Johnny as an angry young man, his resentments are not connected to his sexuality. Lee’s script doesn’t provide any overt homophobia or antagonism for Johnny to deal with. He is out within his community and his family is more concerned that he might leave the farm than they are with who he fucks. His unhappiness runs deeper, attached to the limitations of the land on which he is obliged to remain living. Lee’s representation of that landscape is almost completely devoid of wide shots and romantic vistas, and removes any sense of this as a space of bucolic beauty. It is, mostly, brutally isolating. As Gheorghe says to Johnny, “It’s beautiful here, but lonely, no?”

Lee hasn’t set out to make a political statement with God’s Own Country, telling me during MIFF that he “wasn’t consciously thinking about a canon of queer cinema or other queer relationships on screen.” His only interest was in representing the truth: “If it felt right and if it felt that they would do that then that’s what they did.” Part of that truth involves acknowledging the fact that gay men have sex with other men; that sex is an act of self-discovery. Like a number of recent films, including Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011) and Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo (2016), God’s Own Country doesn’t apologise for this or seek to police straight audiences’ comfort levels.

Lee orchestrates Johnny and Gheorghe’s first sexual encounter as an urgent, visceral, early morning roll in the mud. Each man’s skin is illuminated by the flat, grey moonlight. Neither expresses what he wants with words, only grunts. But it isn’t anything like Johnny’s other brusque encounters. Shot with an earthy frankness, this sex scene contains real heat and alchemy — two bodies hungry for each other, groping to figure out how they fit together.

But there is a shift in later sex scenes to a more quiet intimacy, focused on kissing, touch and togetherness, which expand Johnny’s understanding of what sex can be. One night in the cottage, Gheorghe resists Johnny’s urge to go straight for his penis. Instead, he slows things down, caressing his face, touching his bare chest and kissing his initially reluctant mouth. Lee captures this up close, catching us inside their embrace. When Johnny returns Gheorghe’s touch, he claws at his skin with a palpably ferocious need. As Lee explained to me, “I had to see that change in Johnny physically, and the most incredibly brilliant way of seeing that is seeing how he has sex.” In this way, Johnny’s body is vital in the telling of his story, especially given the film’s deliberately sparse dialogue.

BPM

The importance granted to the body as a vehicle for storytelling in queer narratives was evident in a number of other films that screened with God’s Own Country at MIFF. Along with Call Me By Your Name, Robin Campillo’s BPM (2017) also explores character subjectivity through touch. The film, which draws on the director’s experiences as an activist with ACT UP Paris in the early 1990s, has a large group of characters and concentrates on new lovers, the HIV-positive Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and negative Nathan (Arnaud Valois). Campillo’s film contains a number of candid, erotic sex scenes. Arguably most significant among them is the first between Sean and Nathan, in which they negotiate what it is and isn’t safe for them to do with their bodies given their serodiscordant status.

After sex, as they lie in each other’s arms, touch empowers the discovery of character backstory. As Nathan’s hand moves down Sean’s bare back, Sean recounts his first sexual experience when he was 16 years old with the married man who infected him. As we follow Nathan’s hand, the image of the new lovers in bed dissolves into a recreation of that fateful encounter, and then seamlessly back again. Sean’s body’s story brings him closer to Nathan and the audience closer to his story.

In God’s Own Country, Lee presents the men in various states of undress in a way that is completely consistent within the film’s emotional context. The film exists very much within the European and arthouse tradition, where male full frontal nudity is neither uncommon nor extraordinary. Here, the couple’s shared nakedness communicates something else — a specific story, about each man’s vulnerability and willingness to bare himself physically and emotionally to the other. With Gheorghe, Johnny is comfortable, perhaps for the first time in his life. He finally starts talking, sharing that his mother left the family when he was a boy. Gheorghe says little but responds with touch — an eroticised lick of Johnny’s grazed palm, a gesture that seems to soothe all his other wounds.

Call Me by Your Name

Similarly, in Call Me By Your Name, eroticism is composed from the profound weight of touch and its absence. Guadagnino, cinema’s current master sensualist, builds tension in the audience that rivals that experienced by 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and his father’s 24-year-old research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer), through languid pacing and low, observant camerawork. We yearn, as Elio and Oliver do, for a resolution to the pressure. But ultimately, when release comes, Guadagnino is less interested in showing us bodies thrusting than in hands reaching, limbs locking, toes tangling, a hungry bite on the shoulder or a finger tracing open lips. In Call Me By Your Name, Elio and Oliver’s bodies slowly curve in, like the Greco-Roman statues Elio’s father researches, to meet each other. A tender, yet extremely sexy foot massage is evidence of deep compassion between Elio and Oliver, and that they are falling in love with every single piece of each other.

Such sensual, tender moments of desire between men are important private moments to witness unfolding onscreen. With their emphasis on the body and what that body tells us about how queer people exist in the world, they remove queer desire from the realm of the private and unknown. Representation, or its absence, limits or expands our knowledge of people’s lives — especially those whose lives are perceived to be radically different from our own. To paraphrase British film critic and academic, Richard Dyer, how we see people determines how we treat them. Visualising sexual and sensual touch between queer bodies bestows these bodies with value, agency — and dignity. When straight audiences deal with the realities of queer desire, they deal with queer people as actual flesh and blood human beings. God’s Own Country, like other recent queer-focused films, also asks us to take a step further — to acknowledge and respect what is different.

God’s Own Country, writer, director Francis Lee, performers Josh O’Connor, Alex Secareanu, Ian Hart, Gemma Jones, cinematographer Joshua James Richards, editor Chris Wyatt; distributor Rialto Distribution; Melbourne International Film Festival, Forum Theatre, 5, 7 Aug; currently in limited release

Top image credit: God’s Own Country

6 September 2017
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