“When I wrote this script, I wasn’t seeing stories on screen that reflected where I came from; that’s not just as a gay man, but also as someone from a working-class background,” – Francis Lee at Sundance
Rarely comes along a film that is so sublime a review almost seems like a desecration of a sacred object. Yet, such a film has come into being, as sharp and cool as the wind over the moors, heaths and valleys of Yorkshire. Francis Lee’s (2017) God’s Own Country skillfully utilizes every element available to a filmmaker: lighting, sound, and dialogue; Lee takes the viewer and listener beyond the screen and into the raw veritable corporeality of situated subjectivity. Johnny (Josh O’Connor) lives on a sheep and cattle farm in Yorkshire with his father, Martin, and his ‘nan,’ Deirdre; Johnny’s mother left for the south of England, and he’s the only child. After his father’s stroke, Johnny is responsible for tending to the cows and sheep; the work is laborious, and it includes every manner of tending to animals: from regulating bowels (Johnny gives a cow an enema, his arm nearly engulfed by the cow’s anal cavity) to delivering lambs, which often requires pulling them out of the mothers, a process shown to its fullest extent in the film.
Johnny is sweet and tender with the critters of the barn, yet he has a harder time with the animals that inhabit cities. His visits to the nearby village pub indicate a severe social anxiety; Johnny feels left out. And in Brexit-land, where small farmers are pushed to brink of penury and work never ends, he is set apart from those who leave for university. His class-conscious anger is made evident when an old friend, visiting from university, obliquely acknowledging his homosexuality, suggests to Johnny that he meet her “fun” friend. Piqued by the encounter, yet left reeling with emptiness and loneliness, Johnny reacts angrily then – after his erstwhile friend returns to the bar – disconsolately peers at her and her “fun” friend through the window.
Requiring assistance, Martin and Deirdre hire Gheorghe (Alec Secăreanu), to assist with lambing season. Gheorghe (pronounced “George”) is from Romania, and Johnny reluctantly picks him up from the railway station. After inquiring where Gheorghe is from, Johnny flippantly uses the word “gypsy,” whereby Gheorghe asks him to not call him that. The stage is set for the creation of boundary-conditions. So many fences, stone barriers, marking out the land, yet Johnny doesn’t know how to manage the feelings of rage, desire and tenderness he feels. In an earlier scene, at a cattle auction, Johnny fucks a man, mechanically, violently, as if need and desire had merged into one act of anal copulation; the experience is unpleasant to watch, and I was surprised when the man asks if Johnny wants to go on a date afterwards. Such is the sexual economy of cattle-country? In any event, the man from Romania, Gheorghe, will provide the necessary paddocks to temper Johnny’s recklessness.
What follows is astounding, and with great reluctance I will not describe the detail, for one must simply see the film. If five stars is the highest rating available, I would give this film six. A simple overview will suffice for the purposes here; Gheorghe and Johnny begin to work on birthing lambs, and they are removed from the main house, working out of an abandoned stone and (formerly) thatched roof home. In the small room they share, an intimacy, first based on hostility, builds; Johnny is overcome by Gheorghe’s creation of space for pleasure, slowness and pacing. Johnny is quick to eat, quick to come, quick to get pleasure out of the way. Does he feel that he doesn’t deserve pleasure? Is this not the height of internalized homophobia and class-shame? What boundaries, paddocks, need mending for someone imploding to become whole again? And Gheorge, is it his altermodern, transnational and educated background that allows him to be more emotionally flexible, yet still rooted in the hard practices of farming life? Or perhaps a more stable childhood? Gheorge is simultaneously, stoical, playful and amatory with Johnny. One can never know the full genesis of either’s psyche, and the film lets that gap fill itself, yet like perfect alchemy Gheorge’s presence creates a golden-strand of love so palpable, I dare you not to weep. The dialectic between and betwixt Gheorghe and Johnny is body, soil, trans-nationality, hands caressing nipples, and then the kiss; perhaps Johnny’s first, actually existing kiss, the facial opening of one’s internal organs to an Other. And so it goes.
Watch this film.
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