Friday, January 1, 2010

A Single Man

Tom Ford has made a stunningly economic-poetic film in which a rigorous restrained style is so wedded (pun intended) to his story that every element of form functions to illuminate theme and character. The minimalism of the set decoration and the pristine crispness of George's (Colin Firth) white shirts against the grays of his suits reflect his constricted affect and seized-up heart. His largely glass house has become a prison: its wooden slats are now the bars behind which he merely observes life (symbolically, from the toilet), and no longer fully participates. At the outset of the film, having lost his partner, he's lost his appetite for life, much like the jarred tarantula the neighbor girl shows him, its "cage" decorated with bars of Greek columns.

This is a movie about how we are killed softly by our grief and memories each day, so much so that even a knight in white mohair (Kenny, played by Nicholas Hoult) cannot rescue us. The imagination stirs, but the heart ultimately fails.

The only life left is in the eyes, the vehicles of human connection, portals to the soul. We exist because we are seen by the other. Babies know they're loved via the gleam in their parents' eyes. George's friend Charley (Julianne Moore) spends what seems an entire afternoon painting her eyes, hoping for the recognition of a man, but her painstaking lining has become solipsistic, a gesture of hopelessness. George's heavy black-framed glasses (along with his impeccable suits and ties) are his armor. When he meets Jim in the flashback in the bar, his glasses are off, and so is his uniform. The glasses come off again with his student Kenny, whose eyes are piercingly blue.

While all this sounds rather heavy-handed, the film has a quiet subtlety; Tom Ford designs/directs with a very steady hand and an unwavering eye. I was willing to forgive him the dream cliche of the opening (the phone call would have sufficed to clarify). And while the ending is fitting, it does come from a novel written in an age of irony. It's a testament to Ford's restraint that I did not see that particular end coming; it's carefully set up but not telegraphed.

On what is to be George's last day, he authentically interacts with everyone with whom he comes into contact--the English Dept. secretary, his class, the woman with the terrier, the neighbors, his housekeeper--and of course Charley and Kenny. He is planning to kill himself that day, which merely heightens his sense of the importance, as E.M. Forster wrote in "Howard's End," to "Only connect."

Two or three years back I literally crossed paths with Tom Ford while on a hike. My hiking companion stopped to admire Ford's friend's terrier. And yes, Ford was wearing his signature white shirt, unbuttoned just so. I had read that Ford had come to Hollywood in the hopes of directing a movie. I was wearing my Gucci sunglasses that he had probably designed. He didn't speak, but it didn't seem unfriendly. I was struck by how present he was, and now I realize that Ford was perhaps simply taking the scene in, a natural observer--like any good designer, writer, or director. He appears to be a singularly deliberate man. I look forward to his next project.

As for Colin Firth, his career will be resurrected by this film. His performance is filled with passionate restraint.