Tuesday, December 29, 2009
While everyone has been raving about the amazingly beautiful computer graphics of Avatar, we decided instead to see a smaller film of exquisite visual beauty that didn't require 3D glasses to appreciate. A Single Man, fashion designer Tom Ford's debut as a film director, is an intensely subjective and impressionistic film about a man contemplating suicide after the loss of his lover. The Christopher Isherwood novel that it was adapted from would not seem to lend itself easily to film, since nearly all of the action is internal. Externally, everything takes place in one apparently ordinary day: a man goes to work, teaches a class, goes to the bank, and has dinner with a friend. Internally, the man has all sorts of memories triggered, fits of imagination, and other wanderings of the mind as he contemplates his planned last day on earth. Tom Ford's designer eye vividly "makes it work", employing techniques, like extreme close-ups and enhanced sounds, more typical of music videos and perfume commercials, creating a sumptuously cinematic expression of this unlikely source material. The internality begins from the opening scene, of a man suspended or barely moving under water, which we soon learn is the main character's feeling of heartbreak and loss as sinking and drowning. I don't think I've seen as subjective a film since Bob Fosse's All That Jazz. When the man's attention is focused somewhere, the camera zooms in on it, and when the man's mind wanders, we follow it. The flashbacks give us enough brushstrokes to sketch the back story, but they are not lengthy excuses to shovel in some plot, they are very organic, the actual memories of the man on that day. They are very natural, the way that when you've lost someone, certain objects or experiences will prompt a memory of them. There's a very touching scene when he sees a dog in a car that is the same breed of dog that he and his lover had shared. He flashes back to a brief memory of his lover telling him about something funny the dog had done, while in the present moment trying not to get too emotional with this stranger's dog. Colin Firth is masterful in his performance as George, the bereaved English professor, showing outward British restraint while struggling with strong emotions inside, a brilliantly nuanced veneer of control with tears dangerously close to the surface. Julianne Moore also gives a great turn as his longtime friend and unrequited lover, and Nicholas Hoult is both haunting and tenderly charming in his role as a student who's attracted to George. But the real star here is the designer/director, who had a brilliant and beautiful vision for realizing this film, and whom, I suspect, executed it with the same meticulous attention to detail as seen in the main character, who neatly lays out the clothes he wants to be buried in and leaves a note instructing which knot should be used to tie his tie. Ford's visual symphony of subjectivity is enhanced by its sumptuous immersion in its place and time: Santa Monica, 1962. The property master for this film must have had quite a time finding all the period phones, clocks, hi-fis, cigarettes, and even the bottle of particular single malt whisky that George drank (North Port, which hasn't been made since 1983). Santa Monica 1962 was of course Isherwood's world, and we both noted that Don Bachardy, Isherwood's lifelong lover, was listed as a consultant in the credits. There were certainly glimmers of their real life in the story, and in the texture of this film, which I think Isherwood would have appreciated. An impressionistic film about suicide could easily veer into the maudlin, but Ford avoids that trap. Instead, the film inspires reflection on life with a clarity that reminded me of a Hemingway novel. Isherwood's story is thoughtful without being depressing, and Ford's carefully crafted view inside the main character's mind, combined with George's reserved personality, provides the right amount of detachment to keep it poignant but not ponderous, and ultimately a film of great beauty.