2018 Film Essays

Love as a Force in Francis Lee’s ‘God’s Own Country’

There is always something imperative about love. Because of that, I believe that despite our illusions of having any amount of control in this department, we simply don’t. As the priest played by Javier Bardem in Terrence Malick’s underrated To the Wonder says, “You Shall Love.” It is a commandment — not a suggestion — by the gods. And to us, the only option is to obey. In this sense, my own perception of love and the desire to be with somebody else was always linked to the idea of this feeling as a force of nature, an instinct, a driven, an impulse… call it what you want. It may have something to do with the fear of death, as psychology says, or to form a bond, to live in a group, to procreate as biology and sociology says, but what I mean is that we willingly search for it, we want it. We crave it.

All of that came to my mind as soon as I finished watching God’s Own Country, a film about how complicated family relationships are, and how those blood-related bonds matter (after all, we built an entire civilization upon them). It is also about how parents expect their children to just continue living the way they did, for it must be hard to see the next generation outgrow yours and know that is the natural order of things. It is also about immigration and how the immigrant worker — out of his or her own country, whether by exile, or displacement after a natural tragedy or even a war — is part of modern society. They live, work and love in foreign lands to make it their home, too, and whose right is it to say otherwise? What makes a place somebody’s home? But above all those things (or should I say, complementary to all those things), it is a movie about two farm workers forced to live and work together by external forces beyond their will. One comes from a place devastated by conflicts, corruption and poverty, looking for a place to start his life all over again. The other lives stuck in a place so isolated from the outside world that he doesn’t feel like being a part of society anymore. However, these two men fall in love, and that feeling changes them in a way that even the extreme weather conditions they live in, or the isolation, couldn’t.

John (Josh O’Connor) lives on a farm away from everything. After his father’s stroke, he’s forced to take on new responsibilities and continue the family legacy. Therefore, to essentially become his father, John must first let some part of his own identity go. By the day, he works, follows orders and takes care of an entire farm. At night, he goes to the same bar, in an empty country-side city, and drinks as much as he can to forget things. He also wants to attend college and and have fun on weekends, but he ends up stuck in the real world.

Eventually, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian immigrant, is hired to help John on the farm. He’s brought in by the father since things are getting out of hand. Thus, John — who sees in his father’s choice as some sort of punishment — treats Gheorghe just like anything else on the farm: he tolerates him because it is his father’s orders. The first introduction represents a great metaphor about immigrant work in any place with a large immigration flow.

John calls Gheorghe a “gypsy” several times. He just wants to get on his nerves and make life as miserable as his own. It’s not even because he knows what that word may mean to a Romanian person. He uses it once to provoke him — he succeeds and then keeps doing it. As this forced work relationship goes on, these two men start to get closer and closer after they find a common ground in relation to the farm’s animals. Their bodies speak, and they let each other hear it. In a scene where both men are in an isolated landscape watching the farm’s sheep, Gheorghe cleans his body in front of John, who tries his best not to look. Soon thereafter, he can’t control his impulses and let’s his body do all the talking. There is no dialogue throughout the sequence, everything is shown by the way their bodies act.

They want each other, even if it doesn’t seem rational. They don’t “make love” — they have sex. Aggressive as they may be, not a single word is spoken out loud in the mud, amongst the sheep they were supposed to be taking care of. John just wants to finish and get off, while Gheorghe has a totally different rhythm, a slower pace. He is more in touch with his own homosexuality than John, and that is because he had what John didn’t: time to feel and understand things. He was also brought up on a farm, but with an English teacher mother who taught him how to speak the language. Before arriving at John’s farm, he had lasting relationships. John, on the other hand, was abandoned by his mother and saw his father become unable to even walk alone — and, among other things, he had to let the sensitive side of him go. Still, he had sex, with strangers, in hidden places, in the shadows, in the fastest way possible, but there was still a void that tormented him.

That first sex scene — raw yet also poetic — made me think even more about how a movie like Call Me by Your Name (also about two strangers discovering their own bodies and desire) could be much more beautiful and realistic if it wasn’t so coy about sex. The film, even though unique in the way it sets the mood, never quite delivers after an intense build up on sex and desire. I don’t think that all that coyness made sense in a film based on such an intense, erotic and poetic novel by André AcimanBut Lee, with his debut feature, does exactly the opposite. He manages to shoot male nudity and desire in such a natural way that I was left in awe. As the narrative progresses, the nudity couldn’t feel more natural.

I should also emphasize the delicacy in which Lee depicts John and Gheorghe’s relationship — how they change each other, how they improve each other, how they still have room to breathe. Gheorghe naturally falls for John, but there is room to grow. As the latter suggest to his father in an emotional scene: he can do the job, but it must be his way. John must be his own man for once.

Gheorghe, on the other hand, is bruised for having to leave his country and former lover. He’s used to being alone, quiet and silent, but he is also affected by the presence of John, and the idea that sometimes things work out. Hence, it’s so symbolic to see how John breaks the silence and asks Gheorghe to stay. What a beautiful gem of a film, one that’s carved so effectively by Francis Lee in his debut feature.

Walter Neto (@wfcneto) is a literature postgrad student, film critic and filmmaker wannabe.