Lost in the Movies: A Single Man

A Single Man

In A Single Man, George (Colin Firth) wakes up in bed, his hand dipped in a puddle of spilled ink. He had just dreamt about his lover's fatal car accident, picturing himself approaching the overturned automobile, snow crunching underfoot, the glassy-eyed Jim laying motionless in the snow. George leans over to kiss the corpse and when he awakens, the kiss has left its mark. Imagining that his finger was tracing a pool of blood rather than ink, Jim absentmindedly brings his hand to his mouth and smears a bit of black ink across his lips. It's a physical manifestation of his grief, an evocative one, but resolutely external. It's indicative of the approach the overall film will take to George's suffering, but unfortunately not in terms of its suggestiveness (it is effective) but rather because its ritualistic, exterior quality.

Narrating the movie right away, George informs us that after he's adjusted to waking life he needs about a half hour to put on his disguise. The character wears a mask, to conceal his homosexuality, his grief, anything that makes him vulnerable to the outside world. George, an English professor at a Californian college, wears this mask impeccably, not just the frames or the suit but the expression of sophisticated world-weariness; the pose of sullen intellectual does not so much cover up his discontent ("you look like shit," a co-worker tells him) as give it an acceptable form. He will never again look as hurt and uneasy as he did in bed on that cold morning - even when he's figuring out the best way to blow his brains out.

The suicidal impulse was apparently added by director Tom Ford and co-writer David Scearce; it's not present in the novel by Christopher Isherwood. Not everyone has accepted its imposition. Roger Ebert writes, "His game plan is apparently to complete this day in an orderly way, and then shoot himself, still above reproach. Isn't it pretty to think so. It may work for George, but it didn't work for me. I sensed there were shrieks of terror and anger inside, bottled up for years. ... I think it was Ford's responsibility to suggest [this], perhaps through violations of the facade ... If Ford doesn't scream inside, and I have no reason to believe he does, perhaps the film faithfully reflects his idea of himself and George. Such a man will never kill himself."

Indeed, the film didn't really work for me either. The movie is well-modulated; first-time director Ford (a famous fashion designer) elicits some strong performances from the cast (though only Firth really shines), has firm control of the crisp photography and editing, and unfolds the story with a keen sense of structure. Yet it rings false. As Jim, Matthew Goode is awkward - an awkwardness that only works during a flashback to his first meeting with George. The period details are too forced, with Cuban Missile Crisis bulletins on the air, the costumes and hairstyles too highlighted, and characters compelled to deliver phony-sounding speeches on "being prepared for a nuclear strike" and the "persecution of hidden minorities." (Ironically this second speech is delivered in part to tease out the sexuality of a flirtatious student - but Kenny, played by Nicholas Hoult in an exceptionally frizzy sweater, isn't "hidden" at all - he's practically shooting flames out his fingertips.)

And the switches to color (from a usually desaturated palate) are a bit too on-the-nose; dialed down a bit they could suggest the momentary lifting of George's depression rather than imposing this meaning on the scene. (It would also help if the little girl whose cheerful obliviousness lifts George's spirit wasn't cajoled into such a ringingly artificial delivery. The later shift to color, during an encounter with a Spanish hustler, works better because Ford also shifts the view and distance of the camera, making us conscious for the first time of the warm L.A. air - till now we could've been anywhere, as George's funk has made him indifferent to his surroundings). Other grace notes are intriguing, like the slow-motion pan across an all-American lawn in which cheerful toddlers rip the wings of butterflies, but ultimately not impressive enough to live up to their obvious progenitors (David Lynch, Sam Mendes - the latter hardly the most evocative exampler himself).

Ford has been scolded for bringing too much of a designer's touch to the movie, which nonetheless has won acclaim - relatively unequivocal from some quarters, focused primarily on Firth's performance from others. It's been said that his movie is too superficially beautiful and arty, too heavily designed and contrived and art-directed. While I see where this is coming from, I was actually surprised that the film was not somehow more lavish in its effects; Ford's direction is relatively restrained, perhaps too much so, as Ebert astutely notes. The visual metaphors are not particularly bold, the flashbacks rather plainly expositional, and the general palate tasteful without being provocative. True, that expression of hurt and confusion, flickering across Firth's face initially, must be cast aside.

However, just think of that line from "Eleanor Rigby" - "wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door". (As an aside, it reminds one of that palpable vitality of the sixties, just on the horizon in '62 - when this film takes place - but nonetheless too repressed in Ford's version of the era.) That face could be either the public face, the one we see George wearing throughout the film, or else the real face, the one we see so briefly right off the bat. Either way there's another visage somewhere, a shadow face, and the film does not really have enough presence or depth to convey this (a trait it shares with most movies today, "art" or otherwise - in which gestures supplant naturalism, and iconic imagery supplants depth, but I digress...). More could be more (a bolder, more suggestive style) and less could be more (an elimination of flashbacks and tighter focus on George's maddening repression within the moment), but in this case "just right" is not enough. To be truly effective, perhaps A Single Man would have to be A Double Man and leave that trace of inky blood scarring Firth's lips throughout - metaphorically, anyway.

This review was originally published on the other Lost in the Movies site (and linked on The Sun's Not Yellow).


Sam Juliano said...

That 'Eleanor Rigbey' reference was terrific, and this is your typical probing piece, but I must say I loved the film, and placed it #5 on my year-end ten best list. Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, director Ford and composer Abel Korzeniowski make yeoman contributions here and the film moves deeply.

MovieMan0283 said...

Interesting. I recognized Ford's gestures but did not receive their resonance. Though such observations are inevitably guesswork (however educated) it seemed that the movie was filled with signifiers in search of a signified. Not that it didn't work in patches but overall, it didn't connect.

Thanks for your appreciation, at any rate - glad you liked the Beatles reference, though I'm not surprised!

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I'm become really nonchalant about Ebert, but I digress. The film isn't perfect and I don't love it: I just like it fine. Still I think Firth and especially Julianne Moore are excellent. I can't stress how much I enjoyed her here. She's not my favourite of the year and yet she tops the entire supporting panel at the Oscars, but I'm getting ahead of myself. I hated the Oscars this year.

Your writing style is so impeccable: I'm a little jealous of your right now.

MovieMan0283 said...

Andrew, thanks! At the same time, I've enjoyed your work - you are certainly a stronger and more prolific writer than I was 18 (he says, hand trembling as he puts on his spectacles and leans on his cane).

Moore didn't blow me away in this, though she was fine - and certainly stronger than some of the other supporting actors. Firth's lover (the one who died) was particularly weak. Firth was really the only one who made a strong impression on me here.

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