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CALL ME BY YOUR NAME and the Ghost of Ismail Merchant

Lucas carefully analyzes the filmography of Merchant Ivory Productions.

Merchant Ivory Productions had the most uncanny ability to pen and produce the poshest films conceivable, whilst still retaining all the endearing qualities of a breezy comedy or enduring contemporary romance. Film-making partners James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, as well as their frequent collaborator, writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, laced each film with insurmountable primness and delicately mannered dramatic proceedings. But, in between the folds of tight clothing and musty drapes lay an undeniable fervor for modern passion.

Call Me By Your Name is not a Merchant Ivory production, and Ivory steps up for a rare swing at screenwriting, leaving the direction to the mercurial art house film-maker Luca Guadagnino. But the same-sex romance aches with all the unresolved lust of the most tragic collaborations of the powerhouse cinematic trio during the 60s, leading all the way up to the 90s. Oliver and Elio’s summer fling became a tuneful, lethargic elegy to loves lost in time, intense partnerships forced apart or into secrecy by poor timing and an ignorant society.

Merchant Ivory transcends love. Tearing pre-21st Century notions of traditional romance asunder, the immovable, immeasurable love of an Ivory picture shatter any preconceived barriers of gender and culture. All under the guise of pertinent costume dramas, their filmography encapsulates romances that could move mountains in fleeting flutters of uncontrollable physicality.

A Room with a View
A Room with a View (1986) – source: Curzon Film Distributors

When an unlikely pairing kiss, they kiss as if each other’s lips are imprinted with the secret to eternal life. Each embrace arrives as an electric shock, which instantaneously melts away into euphoric bliss. Each infatuated brief encounter under the safety of shadowy foliage or ancient brickwork reads like the painfully honest longings of a teenage diary. Each stolen kiss in A Room with a View or Maurice contains all the agency and energy of an un-tethered modern embrace, but are consistently interrupted by the pressures of societal scrutiny.

What I’m trying to say is, they may be some of the sexiest films ever made.

The BFI Southbank in London has recently taken to screening some under-seen works of the production company’s catalog, namely Shakespeare Wallah and Heat and Dust. It’s a shame that perhaps Ivory and Merchant’s more personal works – both films that regard a relationship between an Indian and a white English woman – have been oft-forgotten in favor of more starry fodder like Room with a View, though all are equally, fervently executed.

Shakespeare-Wallah
Shakespeare Wallah (1965) – source: Contemporary Films

The former involves a family of travelling actors, and brims with classical dependency that soon crumbles beneath an interracial love affair. With only a whiff of scandal, predominantly offset with the presence of boisterous film star Manjula who resents her partner’s sneaking around with a British visitor, the 1965 film proudly declares its transcendent romantic intentions despite its tumultuous release date. An upcoming Blu-ray release from the BFI on April 15th will hopefully draw a new, more open audience to the film’s timely subject matter, and bring its sharp and sensual black and white photography into poignant resolution.

An early performance from Ivory’s frequently cast accomplice Shashi Kapoor, Shakespeare Wallah’s brooding, poetic protagonist Sanju upholds the universality of adolescent infatuation, with Felicity Kendal’s wryness and effervescent charm layering the film with crucial buoyancy.

Heat and Dust similarly translates to screen two inter-sectional love affairs, entangling its narrative across a generational divide as well as with cultural complications. This entry perhaps encapsulates most brilliantly their occupation with the caustic, stern British etiquette fading away at the feet of temptation with elegant Olivia’s steamy affair with the persuasive Nawab, another lustily present performance from Shashi Kapoor.

Their penchant for bare, honest pleasure of course came at an unfortunate price. Director James Ivory was compelled to keep his romantic partnership with his producing colleague Ismail Merchant severely private, whilst their professional partnership was cruelly allowed to thrive. Although the predictable scrutiny and innuendo of the press was never too far behind the latest Merchant Ivory release, Ismail’s conservative Muslim heritage compelled their private affairs to remain just that.

Still, their projects are indisputably laden with seeds of truth. Like the chapter headings of A Room with a View, a delightfully chaotic little detail, the pretense of upper-class beholding to classic values begin to reflect the innermost desires of the protagonists. Stacks upon stacks of lies and deception begin to surpass the romantic heroes’ proclivity to dupe their family and colleagues, until a young Helena Bonham Carter lets her hair down, unbuttons her shirt, and the entire supporting cast conveniently agrees that all this secrecy in the name of good manners is a load of balderdash anyway.

Whilst many period films’ costume designs denote stuffiness and bodily entrapment, Merchant Ivory understands completely the etymology of the phrase ‘hot under the collar’. Like Keira Knightley’s infamously restrictive corset in Curse of the Black Pearl – which owes a debt to Heat and Dust and many others – suits, dresses, and petticoats are begging to be ripped away, freeing the erotic perspiration and temperate flushes beneath.

Call Me By Your Name
Call Me By Your Name (2017) – source: Sony Pictures Classics

A common recurrence of an Ivory feature are the more sexually liberated players growing more and more naked as the run-time takes its course. Recall the boyish yet charged naked antics in the forest pool during the more steamier portions of A Room with a View, an early parallel to Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer’s frequent aquatic exploration. Luckily, Call Me By Your Name has the luxury of a later setting and a contemporary release, so the two actors free themselves from the bonds of Ivory’s earlier dependency on secrecy and euphemism, spending much of the film topless and in tiny swim shorts.

With Ismail Merchant tragically passing in 2005, James Wilby’s stringent romances with Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves in Maurice is the closest the partnership would get to a reflective, cinematic memoir of a love between two men. But Oliver and Elio’s Italian entanglement is a warm shrine to an amicable partnership that produced some of the most authentic British films of the 20th Century.

Loaded with the history of its screenwriter, Call Me By Your Name’s final close-up resonates more than anything else in the film with Ivory’s side of production; a stark, honest tribute to a love that no longer exists in the corporeal world, couldn’t reveal itself at the height of its intensity, yet every ache and gesture of which can be felt within the frames of decades of cinematic achievements. Not simply an announcement of Chalamet as the next indie superstar, but a tearful memorial to a cinematic partnership decades ahead of its time.

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