Thirty years after James Ivory’s gay romance film Maurice went unrecognized at the Oscars, his screenplay for Call Me by Your Name is in serious contention for the award for Best Adapted Screenplay. The two films are remarkable achievements on their own, but by looking at them side-by-side, their significance comes into full focus and the genius of James Ivory is more fully realized.
During the late ’80s and early ’90s, James Ivory was nominated for Best Director at the Oscars three times for Howards End, A Room with a View, and Remains of the Day. These films have endured over time as some of the greatest period dramas of all time. However, one of Ivory’s films, made at the height of his popularity and arguably his best, was almost entirely overlooked.
Ivory’s 1987 film Maurice is a romantic drama that tells the story of two men in England during the early 20th century struggling to come to terms with their sexuality and accept their love for one another.
Similarly, Call Me by Your Name tells the story of a blossoming romance between two young men as they navigate their feelings and fears against the gorgeous backdrop of summer in northern Italy in 1983.
That the authorial voice behind these two films is the same makes them ripe for comparison. As a gay man that was married to his long time collaborator Ismail Merchant, Ivory’s experience and perspective makes him a crucial element in what makes both of these films so special.
So, how exactly are Maurice and Call Me by Your Name similar and what can we glean from their differences? Moreover, how do these films demonstrate the importance of James Ivory’s voice in cinema?
The power of the period drama
There’s no doubt that James Ivory’s legacy has been built on period pieces like A Room with a View and Howards End. These stories, typically set around the beginning of the 20th century, focus on characters battling against social and economic constraints that dictate their lives and relationships in ways that cause undue hardship.
As a film that puts the characters’ desires explicitly at odds with societal norms, Maurice aligns perfectly with the period drama structure. In fact, by focusing on a gay romance, Maurice escalates the traditional tensions of a period drama. Ivory’s script for Maurice teases out these elements, making the character’s physical encounters and romantic desires all the more thrilling, raising the stakes and the genre in the process.
Set in 1983, Call Me by Your Name is still a period piece, using costume and set design, political undertones, and music to define the time period. However, it sheds some significant characteristics that often define the genre. Ivory removes the overbearing societal restraints that would otherwise prevent the character’s burgeoning romance, replacing it with a luxuriant atmosphere that allows for the natural ebb and flow of romance.
Unlike Maurice, there is not a single frame in Call Me by Your Name during which the characters’ romance or sexuality is frowned upon. They are given the freedom to explore their feelings without criticism or judgment.
Ivory’s approach to adapting these two stories is not just indicative of the way attitudes towards and depictions of gay romance have changed in the last thirty years. It’s also reflective of the way the classic period drama has room to grow and change. This need not be a genre defined by stifled emotions. Call Me by Your Name shows that period pieces can not only tell stories about gay people, but that they can do so in a manner that does not make their desires forbidden.
Exteriors and interiors
One of the essential characteristics shared between Maurice and Call Me by Your Name is the emphasis on the relationship to the natural world. Both films develop rich exterior settings in which the character are free to be physically and emotionally intimate.
In Maurice, Maurice and Clive are seen intimately tangled up together in a field of tall grass, stroking each other’s hair and kissing one another. Later in the film, they are shown intimately talking and kissing next to an empty shed in a forest clearing.
These scenes are bathed in rich, natural greens from surrounding trees and grass, framed in such a way to make the characters feel out of reach from prying eyes that may judge and criticize them. In those scenes set outside where Maurice and Clive are not alone, for example a cricket match, the film still manages to draw out the sexual and romantic tensions between them.
Call Me by Your Name operates in a remarkably similar way. Set in the summer in northern Italy, the story allows the characters to luxuriate openly in the bright sunshine, sweaty and shirtless, for much of the film. Oliver plays volleyball in only a tiny pair of green swim trunks as Elio watches from the sidelines. Elio sits poolside playing his guitar as Oliver listens from nearby. They gaze upon one another openly, only fearing one another.
Later in the film, as their relationship grows, we see their physical relationship take root and inhabit these same exterior spaces. Elio takes Oliver to a remote swimming spot where they share their first kiss and Elio goes so far as to grab Oliver’s crotch.
In both films, the characters’ sexuality and intimacy is inherently linked to the natural world. In conflating these two elements, these films make a subtle yet powerful statement about the normalcy of homosexuality. These films treat their central romances as natural, not perverse or wrong.
What’s more impressive is how Ivory ensures that, even when the characters are inside, they are still connected to these exterior settings. In Maurice, Ivory develops a strong visual language composed entirely of windows; characters opening and closing them, entering and exiting through them, and looking out of them or being framed in front of and through them. The windows operate as a sort of backdoor for the characters.
Since they are unable to express and act on their feelings openly, through the front door as it were, they must look to other ways of reaching one another and that almost always means they must first step outside.
Ivory bakes this characteristic into Call Me by Your Name as well. The film puts moments of intimacy that happen inside in close proximity to exterior settings. There is one particular scene that typifies this style.
The first time that Elio and Oliver have sex, the camera pans away from them naked on the bed to a large window open to the world. We see the wind stirring the trees in the moonlight as the sounds of Elio and Oliver having sex can be heard faintly in the background. It’s a gorgeous shot that is clearly aligned with Maurice in the way it conflates sexuality with the natural world. More than that, however, it speaks to the freedom with which these characters are allowed to express their sexuality.
Unlike Maurice, there’s a distinguishable openness with which Oliver and Elio’s relationship flourishes. They’re desire for one another, both romantic and sexual, faces no obstacles except those they set for themselves. This is in distinct contrast to Maurice where the characters face constraints based on social norms.
This difference also changes the way the characters inhabit the exterior and interior worlds; in Maurice, the exterior world is an escape from society’s dictatorial notions, whereas in Call Me by Your Name, both exterior and interior worlds welcome their desires.
Portrayals of physical intimacy
Within these settings that Ivory helps foster are the physical relationships of the central romances. In both films, Ivory exhibits his firm grasp on the wide spectrum of physical intimacy.
Neither Maurice nor Call Me by Your Name are so blasé or one-dimensional as to assume that physical intimacy is defined solely by sexual intercourse. Rather, both films emphasize the deeply sensual and romantic act of simply touching another person.
In Maurice, the first intimate encounter shared between the characters begins as Clive rests his head on Maurice’s thigh. Maurice strokes Clive’s hair and Clive reciprocates. The tension of this moment builds – Clive sits up and turns towards Maurice and they collapse into an embrace. We see Maurice’s face as he holds Clive; his expression is brimming with a certain excitement, relief, and fear.
It’s a deeply romantic scene bursting with sexual tension all the while the characters are fully clothed. This really speaks to the power of Ivory’s writing; he understands the value and satisfaction of human touch. Therefore, the scenes of physical intimacy – in both Maurice and Call Me by Your Name – are all deeply rooted primarily in that desire for touch; not sex, not even orgasms, but the physical touch of someone who you desire.
Call Me by Your Name underscores the desire for touch in a similar manner. Early in the film, we see Oliver massage Elio’s bare back, his hands spreading across Elio’s sweaty shoulder blades with firm care. Later, when the two spend their first night together, Oliver and Elio hold one another, their hands passionately exploring one another despite being fully clothed, just like in Maurice.
In using touch as the foundation for building the characters’ physical intimacy, Ivory is able to saturate the entire film with a more profound sense of longing and desire that does not feel at all superficial.
Additionally, this foundation makes the actual sex in the films that much more satisfying for the audience to witness. By the time Oliver and Elio consummate their desires, it is accompanied by a sense of liberation; they are letting go of their reservations and giving each other what the other so badly wants. Through simple touch, the film establishes a language of desire and watching the characters have sex reads as an exclamation point in a long-winded monologue.
Ivory develops a similar language of touch in Maurice, yet the film portrays the characters’ sexual liberation in a more delayed and muted fashion. The film follows Clive and Maurice over the course of several years as they get married to women and live separately from one another, during which time they are never seen having sex.
Maurice, however, develops a relationship with another man that is physically intimate. Unlike Clive, Scudder is far more open about his sexuality. This openness acts as a conduit that allows Maurice to more readily embrace his own sexuality. The film draws a clear connection between Maurice’s ability to be physical with Scudder to his ability to accept his own sexuality.
That connection is aligned with Ivory’s keen sense for how important desire and intimacy are to the gay experience, a characteristic that ultimately elevates the film above its contemporaries.
Despite the many similarities between these two films, there is one particular element upon which they diverge that speaks both the social change that has occurred in the last thirty years and the importance of Ivory’s voice in filmmaking.
Both Maurice and Call Me by Your Name showcase scenes where a supporting character delivers a monologue to the protagonist about, for lack of a better term, growing up. Yet these two monologues work in direct opposition to one another in a way that is deeply poetic.
In the very first scene of Maurice, we see Maurice, still a young boy, walking on a beach with his professor. The professor takes the liberty of explaining sex in a very restricted and guarded manner. He states that one day Maurice will lie with a woman to make a child. He says, “that is the very crown of life.” He goes so far as to say that Maurice’s body is God’s temple and that he “must never, ever pollute that temple.”
For a film set at the turn of the 20th century, this ideology is not exactly surprising. However, it establishes the social obstacles that will later prevent Maurice from readily accepting and fulfilling his own desires. This monologue serves to frame the story of Maurice and Clive’s relationship as one plagued by fear and self-hatred. Despite those elements facilitated by Ivory’s vision that attempt to normalize homosexuality, Maurice is still a film framed around repression.
How inspiring that thirty years later Ivory was given the opportunity to write a monologue in Call Me by Your Name that serves an entirely antithetical purpose to the one in Maurice. The monologue in Maurice that opens the film by placing limitations on a boy barely ten years old, framing the story around the importance of heteronormativity.
The monologue in Call Me by Your Name is a moving elegy that calls for love to be given and taken freely, that encourages heartbreak to be celebrated not ignored, that demands we embrace our desires alongside our fears.
It is not unreasonable to say that Call Me by Your Name could not have been made thirty years ago. We know that it couldn’t have been because James Ivory tried. With Maurice, Ivory brought the world one of the most passionate gay romances ever to the screen, but that story was still depicted through the lens of repression, guilt, and sacrifice.
With Call Me by Your Name, Ivory has written a film that helps represent how far film has come in the last thirty years. He’s written a gay romance that exists outside the obstacles of fear and repression. It depicts love and sexuality without boundaries in a way that will no doubt inform movies in the decades to come.