posted by Patrick
Though the buzz I had heard about A Single Man was good, I still approached it somewhat warily. Fashion Designer Tom Ford was making his directorial debut with this picture, and while his menswear seems pleasant enough (at least in photos, which is the only way I’ve experienced it) and I usually found his ad campaigns very sexy, I wasn’t convinced that would translate into an effective film. Was I willing to pay $12.50 to see an extended Gucci ad?
Happily I underestimated Mr. Ford. Yes, from the start the movie is filled to overflowing with beautiful images. Period details conjure 1962 California at every turn, while suggesting the era was fashioned entirely out of chrome. The movie also overflows with images of very sexy people in and out of elegant clothing. Colin Firth as George Falconer is breath-taking whether he’s wearing the director’s designer line, or floating naked under water.(1) Matthew Goode’s blue eyes and dress whites will gladden many hearts, some shirtless tennis players have a cameo, and for those drawn to younger men there are two to choose from: a pretty collegiate type in a fuzzy sweater, and a Hollywood-friendly hustler with a Spanish accent. Julianne Moore never has to do much to knock me from a Kinsey Five down to a Two, and this film lets her do that and then some. Hell, at one point I wanted to have sex with George’s car.(2) Three Bayer aspirin in a period tin also have a moment to shine, though in their case I found their appeal purely aesthetic.
Many people may feel they are just getting that Gucci ad, but I felt the images added up to more than that. In what I understand is a deviation from the novel (3), Ford introduces a plot point that puts George into a state of heightened emotion throughout the film. It quickly becomes clear we are seeing the world through his eyes, his attention honed and captured by sights all around him that beg to be savored. Sure, the camera rests seductively–in extreme close-up–on an ephebe’s impossibly pore-less skin (4) and blue eyes, but it’s just as likely to drink in a girl in a blue dress, a Bridget Bardot look-alike smoking, or a fox terrier puppy. With him we are overwhelmed by life happening all around us.
George’s manner is odd enough it catches the attention of acquaintances and strangers throughout his day. Thanking his housekeeper and kissing her on the cheek is so atypical she considers it cause for concern. A secretary expecting a scolding is likewise stymied when she instead receives a compliment for her lovely smile. Even the young men react to something vulnerable and fragile in him, saying he looks like he could use a friend. George acknowledges the truth of this, but takes neither of them up on it; in true upper-class Brit fashion, he saves his most demonstrative affection for the puppy.
Ford does use a few camera tricks – color becomes super-saturated or drains away completely, movement goes slow-mo – and some effects that get used only once end up seeming like stylistic red herrings. At times too I wasn't sure if we were witnessing a dream, a flashback, or a present moment that had altered George’s perception, but it usually became clear eventually, and I learned to be patient. In fact the pace of the film overall is quiet and methodical, again mirroring George’s progress through his day. Music is played only when a character actually puts on a record, so I never felt like the soundtrack was telling me what I was supposed to feel. Ford lets the camera linger for the most part, avoiding the all-too-common tendency these days to over-use jump-cuts.(5) The slow, quiet pace doesn’t just provide time to drink in the beautiful images, it also allows the actors to do their work, work that all too often is done by a director in the editing room. The camera freezes on George’s face as he takes blow after blow of devastating news, then begins to assimilate it, and Ford is smart enough to realize Firth will give us everything we need. There’s no need for dramatic music, no need to jump the camera about like a pogo stick.(6)
So far I’ve been making this sound like it’s Ford’s movie, but the cast, in particular Firth (7), is exceptional, and they reward their director's trust in them. Moore and Ford between them create a character arc that is small but marvelous; we watch Charlotte go from drunken mess slurring her speech to glamorous good time girl (in fabulous eye make-up and gown) laughing just a bit too much.(8) Goode and the other young beauties aren't asked to do much, but they still make each man more than just a pretty face. The result is strong; we're shown a dangerous mix of British stoicism and California false cheer, where prettiness can be a cage, but beauty can free us.(9)
1. I want to be Colin Firth when I grow up. Doing him would also be nice.
2. There were also some period vending machines I might not kick out of bed. For the record, machines do not generally affect me this way.
3. I have not yet read this, or any Isherwood novel. I hang my head in shame.
4. Actually, no one seems to have any pores in this movie. To be honest I found it a bit distracting. Also annoying.
5. Seriously, does everything have to look like a music video? MTV has a lot to answer for.
6. Excessive use of jump-cuts is kind of a pet peeve of mine. In case you were wondering. I mean, aren’t you getting fed up with jumping down here every other damn sentence?
7. He might even win the Oscar for this, since it’s a tried and true formula: straight actor, gay role, yada yada. In this case, I’m okay with that. He's really great. Seriously. Actually my dream is to be the first openly gay actor to win an Oscar, playing a straight man who suffers nobly, never has sex, and then dies.
8. This even involves some effective jump-cuts.
9. Forgive me for the endnotes. They got away from me.