Friday, December 25, 2009

A Single Man: Stylish Melancholy

Tom Ford's A Single Man - based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood - opens with scenes of a svelte, naked male body, turning luxuriously, anxiously, underwater. It might be a scene for a cologne commercial, except the body seems less an object of desire than a signal of anxiety. Desirable, yes, but also, perhaps, struggling against death.

The next scene illustrates that feeling more definitely: a car accident on a snowy road. A handsome young man has been thrown out of the car, as has a dog - a black and white terrier. Both appear to be dead. A man walks towards the dead man in the car, slowly leans over, and with tremendous tenderness, he kisses him.

The two scenes establish firmly what is to follow, both narratively and visually. The man who is bending over the dead body is George Falconer (Colin Firth), an English teacher at a small, Southern California college in 1962. The dead body is his lover of sixteen years (an ex marine named Jim, now an architect, who lives with George in their fabulously sparse modern home). And the dog, of course, is their dog. The scene is a dream - a kind of farewell - and when George wakes up, he's still in his life, and mourning terribly. There's also another dog, that's gone missing, but Jim's family (whom he was visiting that fateful night) know nothing about it: nor do they know about George, or wish to.

The dead lover would be sad enough, but somehow, the dead dog makes the scene particularly if to emphases not only the totality of everything George has lost, but the purity of it, as well.

What follows is a test of George's will - his will to live, or not live, with the loss of everything so dear. He goes about his job teaching English at the college, and he takes solace with this close friend from England - a woman named Charlie (Julianne Moore), with whom he slept years ago and who still desires him, and has demons of her own.

But like the opening, the story unfolds with the same slick style and studied pace of the most heightened exploration of culture. Perhaps what amazes me most about the film is that Ford is able to find so many great LA sets of mid-century modernism: not only that great house, but the buildings on campus, a bank, a bar, even Charlie's garishly decorated and quaffed arie. The sets here would give "Mad Men" a run for its money, but Ford doesn't limit his sense of style to the decor...there's also the editing, the use of color and light, everything one might expect from the slickest of commercials.

This strength is also, I'm afraid, the movie's weakness. The technique Ford uses to saturate the color of the film whenever George gets a whiff of the life, or lust, of the world around him - that tempts him to come back to life - is lovely, at first, but eventually overused. The same might be said of certain plot devices, like a gun that George carries around, hoping to find a chance to use on himself. Yet Ford has also captured the stylish introspection of the best of Italian cinema, recreating moments from George's life with Jim with just the right degree of nostalgia and romance (even though, at times, their relationship may be a bit too of the hazards of great style), and the scene of his dinner with Charlie, where they both analyze each other's problems over wine and culture, has a breezy authenticity that could come straight of '60's European New Wave cinema.

And even though the movie's ending - which happens suddenly, and carries great symbolism - is unnecessary, even deflating, the film is a great triumph for first-time auteur Ford. It's both sexy and sad, and illustrates with powerful simplicity a committed adult gay marriage, even in the conservative, stylish 1960's, when such a term was rarely applied, or respected. Firth and Moore are both excellent (I wouldn't be surprised if this performance garners Firth an Oscar nomination), as is the supporting cast. It's hard to think of another film like it - that takes a long-term adult gay relationship as a given, and builds from that a story of a completely imagined world. It may be a bit un-polished, but it's still a nice little gem.

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