Style to die for
A Single Man, drama, rated R, CCA Cinematheque, 3.5 chiles
Every day for the last eight months, a middle-aged Englishman named George (Colin Firth) has woken up in his enviable Santa Monica home, but that stirring has “actually hurt.” George is mourning the death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover of 16 years, who died in a car crash. Without Jim, life is pointless, and George has trouble finding a reason to carry on.
Loosely based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel of the same name, A Single Man could also have been titled “A Single Day”: all of the events take place in one 24-hour period. Nothing especially dramatic happens. George goes about his routine— dressing, drinking coffee, and driving to work at a local college, where he’s a professor of literature. Occasionally, he flashes back to his happy, comfortable life with Jim.
As the day wears on, though, we realize that George does not plan to endure the pain of another morning’s waking. As though it were something he did every day, he calmly cleans out his desk drawers; empties his safe-deposit box; buys bullets for the gun in his briefcase; and with the fastidious attention given to a museum exhibit, lays out keys, important paperwork, and the suit he would prefer to wear in his coffin (including a note specifying a Windsor knot for his tie).
A Single Man is the highly anticipated directorial debut from celebrated fashion designer Tom Ford (a former and sometime Santa Fe resident).
As might be expected, Ford’s first foray into film is — not unlike the clothes he has designed for Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, and his own line — meticulously tailored, beautifully styled, and sexy. Many sequences have the deliberate artfulness of advertising (one black-and-white flashback of George and Jim lounging and chatting in a rocky landscape immediately brought to mind a Calvin Klein ad). The movie exhibits an unquestionable reverence for attractive exteriors, but Ford isn’t only out to paint a pretty picture — if he were, why would he have chosen such intensely emotional material?
In contrast to another film I recently screened ( Leap Year, which also stars Goode), the visuals in A Single Man serve as more than just an alluring backdrop. Every detail feels considered and intentional: ticking clocks — and other sounds that mimic them — or magnified watchful eyes shown in cosmetic mirrors and on billboards. Ford and cinematographer Eduard Grau use visuals to connect us with the real emotion that’s coursing beneath George’s perfectly composed, carefully controlled exterior. Shifts in color alert us to George’s changing mood: most of the time, he drifts along in a nostalgic 1960s reverie of gray, beige, tan, and umber, looking as though he might actually fade away. Yet at random moments, when George pauses to appreciate a sunset, a rose in bloom, an attractive young man, or a dog’s fur, reviving color rushes in, like blood to a pallid girl’s cheeks.
Style occasionally threatens to overwhelm substance, but Firth pulls the film back from the brink. His breathtakingly subtle performance is one of the finest I’ve seen lately and a pinnacle of his career thus far (he received the Volpi Cup for best actor at the Venice Film Festival for it). Although Ford puts George in snappy suits, Firth’s face only shows remnants of joy and beauty, as though his will to live has been stripped away. In a pivotal scene, one of Jim’s relatives (fans of Mad Men will recognize Jon Hamm’s uncredited voice) calls to report that Jim has been killed in a car crash. Ford fixes the camera on Firth as George’s face registers shock, disbelief, humiliating rejection— the funeral is “for family only”— and horror. While his telephone voice suggests he’s calm and unrattled, his eyes show that his whole world is, in that moment, crashing down around him. Every twitch of his mouth or darting of his eyes suggests something earth-shattering that’s buried beneath the surface.
Some critics have faulted the film for being overly stylized and art-directed, for keeping emotion— and the audience— at arm’s length. To me, though, the decision to give George such a cool, calm exterior seems crucial. A Single Man takes place in 1962, a closeted time when gay men and women were often forced to hide their true feelings and publicly pass for heterosexual. Even George’s closest, oldest friend, Charley ( Julianne Moore, in an uncharacteristically overblown performance), believes that George and Jim didn’t have a “real” relationship. George is grieving, which is painful enough, but he must keep his grief a secret. He manages his elegant exterior to hide the soul in ruins underneath.
George’s carefully concealed pain contributes to the film’s tension. I began to wonder whether he would go through with his plans, and though he presents a cheerful facade, my sense of dread rarely let up. Ford reinforces the suspense by having news of the Cuban missile crisis squawk over the radio and by having George park his car beneath the wild wide eyes of Janet Leigh on a billboard ad for Psycho. And then, for a moment, the tension relents. We see joy rush back into George’s life briefly, and we wonder whether a certain thing or person will convince him to change his mind.
A Single Man is a heartbreaking story. You could dismiss its pervasive visual allure as superficial and claim that Ford is missing the point; but to me seeing beauty in everyday things is precisely the point. The tick-tock of a clock that bookends the film serves as a reminder that life is short; the flushing and fading color shouts, “Beauty is fleeting!” In many ways, A Single Man reminded me of 1999’s American Beauty. In that film, a parting note in voice-over urges the audience to realize what really matters in life before it’s too late: “It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world.”
Midday cowboys: Colin Firth, left, and Jon Kortajarena