At 89, James Ivory has become the oldest person to win an Oscar, passing even Ennio Morricone (87 in 2016), and also the oldest to win a BAFTA. Although this was Ivory’s first Oscar, he has been nominated several times for Best Director and Best Picture, while Merchant Ivory Productions has won six Academy Awards.
Although Ivory is an acclaimed director, this award was for the best adapted screenplay, Call Me by Your Name (2017), adapted from a novel by André Aciman. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, the film has all the elegant features of a Merchant Ivory Production. It is set in the 1980s in a beautiful house in northern Italy (Crema), and also in Lake Garda, ponds and forests, Italian towns. It has the Merchant Ivory feel of languidness, and the attention to detail and surfaces create a feeling of nostalgia.
Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old boy, is spending summer in northern Italy with his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor of classical art and archaeology, who hires 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer) as his research assistant. A sexual relationship between Elio and Oliver develops over the six weeks during which the film is set, with Oliver and the family’s return to the US hovering in the future.
As in other Merchant Ivory films, the characters are produced by a blend of cultures. They are American Jews who half-conceal their identity who seem to have much of the old Europe in them with their bookishness, love for music and education, good food and multilingual in English, French and Italian, with Elio’s mother also knowing German, perhaps through her family’s past.
However, it is unlike other Merchant Ivory films in being very much about sex, between women and men and men and men. There are bare bodies, barely-dressed bodies, wet bodies and plenty of scenes of sex, tasteful even if involving fruit. There are numerous bathing scenes and characters regularly plunge into pools, cisterns and lakes.
Oliver is sexualised throughout the film, never wearing long trousers but always in shorts and often naked. We are soon aware for Elio’s desire for him, a passion quite different from the casual relationship he has with a girlfriend. It is also a film about love in the family, particularly between a father and his son, although Elio’s mother is a rather sketchy figure who seems to spend time with the servant producing meals.
Ivory is best known for his work with Merchant Ivory Productions, a team he formed where he produced 40 films and directed 17, with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who wrote or co-wrote 22, and Ismail Merchant, his personal and professional partner for 44 years, until Merchant’s death in 2005. The American Christian, the German Jew and the Indian Muslim often joked about their differences, yet they worked together to produce a distinctive style.
Merchant Ivory films define upper middlebrow cinema. The term is not one that is dismissive but one which should be reclaimed. It is a form of art that ultimately reassures us even though it makes us feel and it makes us think. It occupies a cultural space where we find literary festivals and literary prizes (such as the Booker, which Jhabvala won).
This is not to deny that there are issues which are raised in their films. There is a clash of cultures which may seem old-fashioned today but was of its time. Clashes of civilisations – India vs Britain. Merchant Ivory looked at outsiders who could never quite belong and who could communicate across this clash. They raised personal politics of race, class, gender and sexuality.
The films were often set in the past, being so-called ‘heritage film’, mostly adapted from literary classics by great writers such as E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1985) which won three Oscars including for screenwriter Jhabvala, costume and production; Howards End (1992), which won three Oscars including best actress for Emma Thompson and for Jhabvala’s screenplay and art, Maurice (1987), although they did not make the most obvious of his novels, A Passage to India.
They also made films adapted from the novels of Henry James (The Europeans (1979), The Bostonians (1984) and The Golden Bowl (2000)) and Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day (1993), and his original screenplay, The White Countess (2005)). Jhabvala wrote screenplays with Ivory and also adapted her own books (The Householder (1963); Shakespeare Wallah (1965); Heat and Dust (1983)).
Merchant Ivory featured some of the best screen actors and biggest stars of their time: Anthony Hopkins, Shashi Kapoor, Emma Thompson, Daniel Day Lewis, Madhur Jaffrey, Christopher Reeve, Leela Naidu and Helena Bonham Carter.
Merchant Ivory were often mocked for their amazing mise-en-scene – beautiful people in beautiful places. The camera does indeed linger on these surfaces, as do all heritage films, but their films are about more than beauty and elegance. They also focus on character, on people trying to adapt to their situations. The characters, not events or plot, are the focus of their stories.
Ivory is no mere maker of costume drama. There is much that is middlebrow in these productions, but there is great accomplishment and even art. Satyajit Ray provided music for two of their films and he was also a guide to much of Indian culture which Ivory and Jhabvala observed so carefully as outsiders.
Although Ivory’s age was much mentioned, his clothing also attracted attention at the Oscars as he wore a shirt with the face of the young Elio, Timothee Chalamet, painted on it. It is a reference to the shirt his character, Elio, wears in the film with Matisse-like faces. Perhaps these Oscars, now talking about diversity and ‘inclusion riders’, can celebrate this figure, the late teenager exploring his sexuality.
The end of the film makes this more than just a beautiful affair. When Elio says farewell to Oliver at the station, he seems a lost child as he calls his mother to collect him. This is followed by an amazing speech by his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), a father speaking from experience to his son about love which is not about gender or sexuality.
Professor Perlman says he noticed that his son has had a beautiful friendship, perhaps more than a friendship. As a parent he is glad that his son has had this love, despite the pain. The speech in the film follows the words of the novel by Aciman.
“In your place, if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is no better. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!”
This is a speech that many may wish their fathers had made, of acceptance, understanding and about love and coping with its tribulations. When Elio weeps at the end of the film after Oliver has called him on Hanukkah to tell him he’s getting married, we know that this love story or friendship is part of Elio himself. Ivory chose his shirt wisely as the image of the teenager whose lesson in love speaks to us all, whatever our sexuality. To end with the tears of sorrow that are part of who we are, not our weakness but our strength, is the work of a true Oscar winner.
Rachel Dwyer is professor of Indian culture and cinema at SOAS, University of London.