Sunday, January 17, 2010

Love: A Single Man

When it comes to film, I tend to be something of an aesthete. Give me a convoluted plot with impeccable art direction and (though there are exceptions) I will likely have fallen deeply in love by the time the credits roll. Yes, I'm a sucker for beautiful cinematography. If it's pretty enough, I will retreat inward, not speak in full sentences and watch a film with only two snips of dialogue for hours. I'll admit, too, I was already half in love with fashion designer Tom Ford's cinematic debut A Single Man the first time I saw the trailer. It was a glorious two minutes filled with 60's styles, symmetry, and frame after frame of wall-worthy stills. I waited for two agonizing months to see this film, all the while thinking my disappointment was nearly inevitable. Amazingly, or perhaps miraculously, the film is, scene by scene, shot by shot, just as I wished it would be.
Based on the 1964 Christopher Isherwood novel of the same title, Colin Firth does what's easily the best acting of his career as George, a middle-aged professor living a closeted existence in early 60's Los Angeles. We learn, immediately, that his long-term lover (Matthew Goode) has been killed in a car accident. After the haunting imagery of the opening scenes, we become privy to watching the despondent existence of a man who is terminally broken hearted. The film follows George on the day he has chosen to end it all. Yet, he's an organized man and in his final hours he executes every action, every pleasantry and piece of his routine to perfection. He drifts from home to campus, campus to liquor store, awkward dinner party to memory-laden bar. The film is laced with allusions and social codes. George is the invisible man who everyone sees, he teaches Huxley and lectures above the unfocused cigarette puffing of his students, who seem to all have crushes on him. His neighbors are preternaturally aware of his every footfall, his closest friend (Julianne Moore) boozily attempts to throw herself at him, yet for the most part, no one knows him. His plight, his pain, the entire truth of his existence is ignored rather than acknowledged. Firth is a far cry from his more familiar romantic comedy typecasting. Immaculately costumed (in a Tom Ford film, could there be any other way?) in black-framed glasses and a fitted suit, his performance is one that's saturated with as much grief as hope. We see his life in snippets interspersed with flashbacks and past joys. Every new encounter becomes a chance at sudden redemption as we grow to know and care for the well being of this character, hoping that he will accidentally trip on the one thing that will reverse the path he's stumbling down.
The risk, of course, with something dependent on so much emotion and so wrapped up in its own stylistic importance, is that it can become a laughable, over-the-top exercise in poetic pretension. Indeed, Ford is trying quite hard. Each scene is immaculate down to the slightest detail. Every object has been placed purposefully, every gesture executed to convey exactly what it should. It makes Mad Men look like a finger paint portrait of the period.
When we watch Firth and Moore dance, drunk, twisting to Booker T., we suddenly understand their arrangement and the level of strain that exists between them in their supposed proximity. It's a painfully awkward, ultimately tragic moment, but not at all laughable. Instead, Ford makes it beautiful. He makes, too, the slick, sparkling-eyed seduction of our hero by an almost absurd young man (Nicholas Hoult) something that feels more like you're reading it out of some lovely Bloomsbury novel as opposed to watching it play out like a cliche fantasy. This is Ford's gift, it would seem. He has the ability, through artful arrangement and careful casting, to take a very simple story of very standard substance and make it feel fantastically fresh, new, and alive. I could live in it. Pack up my bags and jump through the screen.
Ford's first directorial effort is an impressive debut by anyone's standards. It's a sophisticated drama that manages to nail the style as well as the substance and put forth a brilliant, sparkling tale of alienation that ranks amongst the gentlest of tragedies. Have no doubts or illusions to the contrary, A Single Man is indeed a tragedy. The level of devastation George experiences is heartbreaking, the way in which he's forced to internalize it is perhaps even more so. Yet, the film, as a beautiful object, is a joy to behold. A bittersweet joy, but a joy nonetheless. There's a pent up energy running throughout the film that's palpable. It surges through the characters just below the surface, building up menace, frustration and sexual tension to propel you through the film's meager running time.
Certainly, there will be those who disagree. When films become art pieces in their own right, there are always those who will suggest the film is weighed down by its own accoutrement and lofty ideals. A Single Man is a remarkably smooth piece of work, carefully constructed, evenly balanced, and destined for several melancholy revisits.

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