Friday, July 16, 2010

A Single Man

Dir. Tom Ford

In dealing with Tom Ford's debut feature film A Single Man, I came to the conclusion that it would be ideal to write two reviews. The first would discuss the film's sexual politics. In fact, just in reading or hearing about the film one is likely to find out, first and foremost, that A Single Man is about a gay man. While this review would no doubt defend the film as being about a lot more than “a gay man” it would also note, at the risk of sounding bigoted, how, were the film about a straight man coping with the loss of his heterosexual partner, two reviews would be entirely superfluous. In other words: controversy and timeliness are built into A Single Man's take on America's relationship to homosexuals. This same review would draw parallels to 2008's Milk and ask whether or not sexual persecution in cinema is exploitative when it is shown by a person of the same orientation being portrayed? On a tangent this review might also attempt at defining the difference between gay cinema and the academically fetishized blanket genre “queer cinema”.

The second review is the one you will find here. This review critiques the film's cinematic merits. One could suggest that this is a restrictive means of judging a film. No art lives inside a cultural vacuum and a film like A Single Man is as likely to change an uncertain voter's perspective as any campaign speech. And while the Prop 8 debate still rages on, in this tiny corner of the world I'd like to talk a little about color, light, dedication and love. A Single Man is a day in the life of George Falconer, an older English man who teaches at a university in Southern California. As you've likely gleamed from my introduction, George is also gay. Having lost his lover of 16 years in a car crash 8 months earlier, George has finally had enough of his internal suffering and decides to kill himself. The story is told alternately in stylized flashback sequences and present tense vignettes between George and his housekeeper, sexually curious student, former female lover (Julianne Moore is divine as damaged goods) and myriad others.

Director Tom Ford is an openly gay fashion designer turned filmmaker who impressively financed the entire seven million dollar project himself. Ford is self-proclaimed lover of cinema and his handsome film is evidence enough of that. With sets designed by the folks over at AMC's powerhouse drama Mad Men and outfits that would make Edith Head swoon, A Single Man is an impeccable looking film. Ford's attention to detail is remarkable and not limited to sets and costumes. The film teems with erotic energy. Certain body parts, mouths in particular, become so intensely charged with sexuality that their image seems pressed to the screen, just about to burst through. There is also Colin Firth's performance as George and his ability to tell the whole story of his emotional life with just his face. Ford meticulously captures the sometimes hallucinatory subtlety of George's perception with remarkable efficiency.

Of course all this attention to lush detail has a cost. Fashion tends to work in dizzyingly fast paced or instantaneous mediums (run way shows and photo shoots respectively). At times it seems as if Ford is trying to capture too much in a single shot, an understandable side effect of the fashion industries need for “the perfect photo”. Unfortunately, in conjunction with this perfectionism is Ford's insistence on premature cutting and editing. While his unique use of filmic blush, where the cold color palette saturates at moments of physical or emotional intimacy, is an impressive derivation from Hitchcock's historic use of lighting as mood, Ford tends to rush things along forgetting to give his film room to breath. Cutting is properly used in places (ex. George's fragmented flashbacks of receiving the news of his lover's death), but overall Ford has difficulty committing to long takes and mise en scene.

A Single Man is a film about the fragility of perfection. On the exterior the stodgy, stiff, immaculately soignée George is a picture of English intellectual rigidity. Inside though he is something else entirely. George is best surmised in a mid-film, haunting tableau of his desk where all his important possessions are arranged perfectly while his revolver sits at an angle, disturbing the pristine symmetry of the arrangement. The audio visual aspects of Ford's film are as impeccably put together as George's wardrobe and home. But his film lacks inner turmoil; George's restless soul. Ford's drama is uneven and his dialog is stilted, just a shade too literary. What we miss is the shattering and putting back together again of George's heart. Firth works hard to overcome the slow script but in the end chocks up an incredible performance that the film does not completely deserve. Maybe the film's subject matter was just too close to home for Ford and he compensated by making the text into more of a film than it otherwise needed to be. Whatever the case may be, A Single Man represents an impressive, fresh faced debut from a director worth looking out for.

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