Depictions of same-sex love in film often require characters to escape – from the confines of society and out into the open.
Back in 2005, Brokeback Mountain saw Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal ascend into the mountains to consummate their desires, leaving their families and the homophobia of rural Wyoming behind them. 2017 has also seen a number of films create intimate and sensual queer utopias, contrasting with the pessimism that predicates the majority of the queer canon. Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight, and God’s Own Country offer a more hopeful vision than the likes of Brokeback have afforded in the past.
Call Me By Your Name, Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel, sees Oliver – a charming and intelligent American student, sculpted like a Greek deity – join Elio’s family as a research assistant to his father. Inevitably, a romance sparks between them and plays out amidst the backdrop of a sun-kissed Italian summer. Languid summer days spent swimming by the river are framed by trees ripe with fruit, in a setting critic Wendy Ide describes as “throbbing with symbolic resonance,” as if they inhabit a modern day Garden of Eden. In what will surely become the film’s most iconic scene, Elio plucks a peach from the orchard and uses it as an instrument of masturbation. The peach is juicy and full of flesh – all of queer desire condensed into one fuzzy orb. But succumbing to temptation does not lead to a moral downfall and, in a subversion of the Biblical trope, Elio is not rejected because of his non-conformity; the plucking of the fruit leads instead to a fall into the vertiginous depths of first love.
Guadagnino carefully evokes nostalgia in the film, both for the 1980s and a more classical, Hellenistic age. But as much as the film exists in a nostalgic daydream, reality still lurks around every corner. When Elio and Oliver kiss for the first time, Oliver stops them in order to refrain from doing “something bad.” When they visit the mountains towards the end of the film, the natural setting allows them to love freely and uninhibited, before returning to urbanity, where kisses are teased and withheld in backstreet corners. When they finally consummate their love at home, they awkwardly silence their passion in fear of being discovered.
By depicting a modern Garden of Eden, ripe with Biblical imagery, evoking nostalgia for both the 80s and a more sexually liberal Greek age, Call Me By Your Name creates a queer utopia in which first love can play out in all of its passion and tragedy. Although the touching acceptance of Elio’s father does create a less threatening home environment than one would expect of the 1980s, the prospect of being outed does still loom throughout the entire film. Guadagnino’s idealism is fairly balanced with the realities of growing up as a queer man.
Moonlight, Barry Jenkin’s Oscar-winning drama, is more extreme in its contrast between idealism and reality. The film sees Chiron come of age in a three-act narrative – from childhood, to adolescence, and adulthood – all of which expose the conflict between his identity and society. He is liberated in nature, yet his sexuality is repressed in the ghettos.
In the first act, Juan teaches Little how to swim, metaphorically baptising him in the cool, fresh waters of the unrelenting sea. When Chiron and Kevin become sexually liberated on the beach, the background is blurred in hazy midnight tones and the lovers’ intimacy is brought to the fore, their openness facilitated by the gentle rocking of the waves. This is a naturalistic vision of sexual freedom, isolated from the constraints of society and released by nature’s calm and soothing embrace. Little is bullied at school and is subject to the abuse of his mother, which only exacerbates as he reaches adolescence. When we meet him in the third act he is overtly masculine, working as a drug dealer and still repressing his homosexual desires. Although racial tensions play a less significant role in the film, his intersecting racial and sexual identities cause him to regress into his former, desexualised self, deprived of intimacy and affection.
Society has caused a complete collapse of the self and it is only in the embrace of nature that Chiron is able to liberate his desires. He has been unable to divorce who he is and the hyper-masculine role that is expected of him. The utopian shoreline offers a new horizon: the ocean is expansive, cast in pastel blues, as his fears of confronting his homosexuality are resurfaced. Yet hope is offered in the final scenes as Little looks out onto the sea.
God’s Own Country, released earlier this year, also grapples with modern masculinity, but in a very different setting – we are transported to the bleak, harsh, and brutal rural Yorkshire countryside, where Johnny is oppressed by the realities of working life on his family’s farm. When Gheorghe – an immigrant brought in to ease Johnny’s workload – arrives, Johnny slowly and reluctantly falls in love.
It would be easy for the film’s director, Francis Lee, to open up the camera to wide panning shots of rolling hills and sun-drenched forests, but instead the camera appears up close, its claustrophobia denying the viewer of scenic landscapes. “I really wanted to show the landscape in the way that I had experienced it,” said Lee in an interview with The Guardian. “It didn’t have the feeling of freedom or the pastoral. At times it felt oppressive and brutal.”
Only when Johnny and Gheorghe fulfil their sexual urges and embark on an intimate relationship does the landscape open up to wide panning shots and orchestral music. These fleeting glimpses of unrestrained vulnerability, as Johnny and Gheorghe look out at the sublime landscape, depict a utopian vision where a life without fear of love becomes possible. The pair’s homosexuality is not necessarily repressed – from the offset Johnny indulges in empty sexual encounters in the village – but it mostly goes unspoken. For all its bleakness, the rural countryside is not rampant with homophobia; Johnny is repressed instead by the harsh realities of working life and the pressures of modern masculinity, Gheorghe by violent xenophobia. The world of God’s Own Country is at oppressive and bleak, but also realistic in its hopeful vision of rural communities devoid of homophobic hate crime.
Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight, and God’s Own Country imagine queer utopias where first love is allowed to thrive and collapse naturally. Queer characters escape, however briefly, from the confines of society and the oppressive forces that work against them. Their hopefulness is not overblown, however: characters still come into conflict with uncomfortable and violent oppression.
This idealism in LGBTQ+ cinema does not exist in a vacuum, either. Queer films still suffer from a severe lack of non-white gay male roles, blockbusters such as Beauty and the Beast are continually being accused of queer baiting, and the marketing of Call Me By Your Name still proves that these stories are prone to straight-washing. But, in 2017, there has been a gentle wave of films that are moving queer narratives forwards, offering a hopeful future for the lives of their LGBTQ+ characters.
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Words by Liam Taft