Friday, May 7, 2010

A Single Man directed by Tom Ford

In the opening credits of A Single Man, elegant letters are set against a soft-focus, moving background of a body drifting dreamily through water. The music is elegantly orchestral, swirling and swelling. It's an important image. But then we cut to something truly surreal: A man walks slowly and stiffly into a snow-covered scene of an overturned car. The driver is dead, splayed out on the snow next to the stiff corpse of a little dog. The driver's eyes are open but are dull and lifeless. His face and head are caked with blood. The man looks down at the driver and then lies down next to him. The man leans over to kiss the dead driver. Our focus is pulled in close. The screen fills with the cold, dead eye of the driver. The man wakes up with a start.

Colin Firth is the man who walked onto that accident scene, and he earned an Oscar nomination and won a BAFTA for his lead role in A Single Man. He deserves the recognition. This beautiful and moving piece of art demanded an actor of great subtlety and control, and Firth has delivered a brilliant and meticulous performance. There's something magical about watching a great actor in a great role.

How does one act when an accident takes away the purpose & meaning -- the very soul -- of one's life, leaving behind an agonized husk to putter around in the wreckage that's left? In other words, what do you do when your life has been emptied of love? And when the strictures of society deny most modes of self-expression, especially to members of "hidden minorities," how does one cope with the tides of emotion that flow inside all of us? When the way you feel and the way you act are at odds, eventually something has to give, right? These questions animate Colin Firth's performance, and his reactions are poignant.

Directed by fashion designer Tom Ford and adapted from a novel by Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man depicts a particular day in the life of an English professor in Los Angeles in 1962. The Cuban missile crisis hangs in the very air, but Professor Falconer is almost too preoccupied to notice. Eight months earlier, Falconer's longtime male lover died in a car crash, and Falconer has been in mourning ever since. His life, though outwardly elegant and perfect, is hollow. But on this day, Falconer has decided to do something about it. On this day, Falconer is going to make a change.

There's an old saying that life is what happens while you make other plans. This is an apt description of A Single Man, which follows Professor Falconer as he makes his way through the routines of his daily life, from his morning grooming to his drive to work, where he stands in front of his indifferent students, looking at them as if they were from outer space. He is prompted by an innocent question to give an impromptu speech about fear, which the class greets with numb silence. Falconer dismisses the class, and his day continues. Throughout all of this are flashbacks, triggered by memories of Jim, his dead lover.

Falconer encounters a wide array of people during this day, from a preternaturally observant little neighbor girl  (complete with pet scorpion) to his fabulously drunk best friend, a divorcee played by Julianne Moore, who has feelings for him, despite her knowledge of his homosexuality. Outside of a liquor store, Falconer bumps into a James Dean look-a-like and they share a few charged moments, which Falconer savors wistfully. In the most important encounter of all, Falconer is met by one of his students, who turns out to be anything but numbly indifferent to the professor. Throughout A Single Man, Falconer proves to be an excellent conversationalist, his words dripping with sensitivity, irony, and honesty. He is a decent man wounded by a broken heart.

As a director, Tom Ford is a master of detail, and his movie is an intricate composition of color and movement. Changes in timeline are signaled by changes in palette, as Falconer's drab (but well-pressed) present is interspersed with vivid remembrances of happier times. And, since Falconer is obsessed with the memory of Jim, almost everything triggers one. Sitting at the breakfast table, Falconer looks around and remembers the moment when he and Jim decided to buy their house. He revels in the memory, which is brightly lit and warmly-colored, but the phone rings, wrenching him back to the present. He lets it ring on, as his thought range over his plans for this day.

When the phone rings again, it brings back the memory of the phone call Falconer got that told him of the death of Jim. There are no histrionics at this devastating news. Instead, Falconer has a restrained conversation with Jim's brother while pain washes -- briefly, ever so briefly -- across his face. It's only after he hangs up the phone that he succumbs to his grief.

Later, we learn the story of how Jim and Falconer met, and of what their relationship matured into during their 16 years together. Being homosexual has never been fully accepted by society, and, in 1962, things were much worse. For instance, even though they have been together for so many years, Falconer gets the hint when Jim's brother tells him that the funeral is "for family only." Yet this movie is less about homosexuality than it is about love. It's an intensely erotic movie, even though there's no sex on screen. In fact, the most physically-intimate moment is that dream-kiss in the opening scene.

Instead, what Ford has fashioned in A Single Man is an erotics of minutiae. Beyond the exquisite clothes and sets and props, the story itself is built of small, telling anecdotes, none of which are in-and-of-themselves inherently dramatic. But they accrete. They accumulate until their overall effect is large and significant. As you notice their effect on Falconer, A Single Man becomes riveting.

I have heard criticisms of A Single Man that say its pace is slow, even glacial. But, after watching the movie several times, I have to disagree. Remember that this story is about the changes that Professor Falconer undergoes in the course of the day he has chosen to put an end to the empty, loveless life he has been living since the death of Jim. Such changes are internal and incremental, and they can only realistically register in the most subtle of inflections. This is not a movie where our hero takes off his glasses and dons a cape. This movie rewards sensitivity to nuance.

As I mentioned before, life is what happens while you make other plans. A Single Man is the story of a man who plans to ends it all, but is, instead, claimed by life. It's a conversion that's well worth watching.

directed by Tom Ford
starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Nicholas Hoult & Matthew Goode

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