Have been hanging to see A Single Man and finally did tonight, with my mum who’s staying in Sydney for a few days. Oddly the last few times she’s visited we’ve ended up partaking of distinctly gay-themed entertainments. Coincidence, I swear, but I think she thinks I’m challenging her.
So – A Single Man. It’s the film based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 book of the same name, directed by former Gucci designer Tom Ford. Set in 1962 California, against the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis, George Falconer (Colin Firth) is a gay literature professor deep in grief for his lover of 16 years (Jim, played by Matthew Goode) eight months after his death in a car accident. George drags himself out of bed, makes himself human through an elaborate grooming process, and steels himself to “just get through one day” before the suicide he has planned that night.
The film is uncomfortably good at expressing the interminable inertia of depression. Ticking clocks are a recurring image, and George’s day passes in slow motion as he wills himself through every minute. But there’s also incredible beauty as George’s senses are heightened by the knowledge that this is his last day on earth, and he becomes transfixed by tiny things – a woman’s cat’s-eye make-up, a young girl’s kneesocks, a beautiful spanish male prostitute’s smoking mouth. Almost imperceptibly, the grey palette we’re viewing the story through flushes with colour and warm light. Ford does a wonderful job of showing the world through George’s eyes.
We feel George’s impotent despair too. There’s a scene of macabre comedy as George tries to find the right position in which to shoot himself. Lying on his bed, propping himself up against the wall with a pillow… you can see he’s utterly concerned with how it will look when he is found, and also the mess that will be made. He drags a thick sleeping bag onto the bed and zips himself awkwardly inside, and struggles to manouveur the pistol inside his cocoon. And then the phone rings, and he lies still for a moment, awkwardly exits the sleeping bag, and answers: “No, I haven’t forgotten your gin, I’ll see you in ten minutes.”
Julianne Moore is lovely as Charley, a faded beauty and past love of George’s who remains his bestie. They get drunk over dinner and dance and fight, and the actors’ chemistry renders realistically all the flaws and omissions of long-term friendship. Nicholas Hoult (the kid from Skins and About A Boy) feels a little unnatural, with his incongruous tan and American accent, as a student hitting on George. But Firth’s performance is virtuoso – amid all the swirling light and colour and period design, he is calm and still and genuine.
Fashion is foreign to me, so I can’t give you much context on Tom Ford. But I feel like I know him in a small way, through the sense that I get from this film that he has made, in which nothing you see is an accident. Every room, every set, every prop, every angle, every drift in and out of focus, every bloom of colour and light has been considered and planned just so.
This sense of arrangement is echoed in George’s behaviour – his precise drawers of stacked socks and papers and fresh starched shirts; his laying out of his funeral outfit with specific written instructions about windsor knots; his desk covered with the keys and papers and notes he knows will be required after his death.
Among us there walks a certain kind of narcissistic introvert, who won’t tell you their tastes but wants desperately for you to approve of them. So they develop an immaculately “accidental” semaphore of cultural cues, books and magazines and accessories and photographs and CDs sprawled everywhere in what seems a casual chaos, but which is precisely calculated. Nothing is an accident. That’s what I see in Ford’s direction and George’s character.
It’s not a movie for everyone – Ford’s focus on aesthetics and slow motion can get a little ponderous. It’s a sensual film more so than a sexual one. I found it heart-breaking and gorgeous but my mum thought it was “just ok”. If you’ve seen it, I’d love to know your take….