12 October, 2009Issue 10.1Film & TVThe Arts

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Grief in Huis Clos

Jane Han

fordTom Ford
A Single Man
Icon, 2009
99 minutes


When it is announced that a film financed and directed by Tom Ford is debuting at a major film festival, visions of sultry models in scant clothing prompt a strong dose of cynicism. One expects Ford, the former creative director at Gucci, to deliver feline men in ebony, perhaps the zippy, canted camerawork of the fashion world, and all of the fleeting superlatives of haute couture. It is a surprise, then, when A Single Man begins in the lower octaves and proceeds at a slow, burning pace through a day in the life of a middle-aged literature professor.

The film is a smashing directorial debut, thanks in large part to Colin Firth, who gives a career-topping performance as a man grieving over the accidental death of his lover. In one of the opening scenes, a motionless Firth sits sunken in his chair paralyzed by the slow curl of loneliness—a moment so imbued with the grain of loss it elicited audible sobs from the audience within the first ten minutes of the film.

Ford professes to have been captivated by Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same title as early as 1982. Though he identified strongly with the protagonist, it wasn’t until decades later, after quitting his post at Gucci, that Ford found creative reserves to fashion the novel into a film. The original story is deceptively simple: it is at its barest a portrait of an ordinary man named George Falconer during the course of a single day, 30 November 1962. Through idle peregrinations and Woolfian interior monologue, we follow George as he grieves over the accidental death of his partner. Dubbed “the founding text of modern gay literature” by Edmund White, the novel was a favorite amidst the author’s nine books—the one Isherwood himself confessed had come closest to saying what he meant to say.

But A Single Man fits neither neatly nor solely into the genre of gay film or literature, if such clear tropes can be said to exist. One of the true successes of Ford’s adaptation is that he takes pains to diverge away from simplifications. Instead, the film highlights the broader themes of love and isolation, the perennial search for human connection in the face of irreparable loss, and the continual churn of an indifferent world. Crucially, these themes are expressed on the film’s own terms, transforming some of the novel’s more esoteric New Age musings into bold, risk-taking fluency in cinematic composition and style. Ultimately, A Single Man is a film about seeing—as George inches closer and closer toward suicide, he comes to discover the paradox of grief: that it takes one to a place of genuine emotion where life burns with stirring depth.

It would be a mistake to attribute this phenomenology to Ford’s own devising, as his concerns are less philosophical than emotional. Rather, these insights arise out of the camera’s latent ability to bracket the world, to bring us into the intimate, hermetic radius of isolated grief. Ford’s directorial coup stems from his ability to amplify this vision with a plethora of close-ups, jump cuts, and slow-motion in tandem with Shigeru Umbeyashi’s (In the Mood for Love, 2046) locomotive score, which navigates repetitively around the orbit of George’s drowning emotions. Much of the film’s power, aside from Firth’s compelling performance, comes from this scrutinizing, obsessive quality of filmmaking. It is as if Ford wants to compress everything in dense, rotating spaces to heighten the natural huis clos of the camera.

And yet, surprisingly, the film is neither depressive nor suffocating. In one of the opening scenes, George lays inert and deadweight in his bed, a bloom of black ink accidentally seeping onto his white sheets. The banal grid of his daily routine is spread through with many of these ambrosial flourishes—moments of lush, transparent beauty thriving amidst looming morbidity. The result is operatic, elegiac, and above all, cinematic—the opulence of Wong Kar-Wai with a dash of Hopper.

In another scene—one of the most revelatory, if not strangest moments in the film—George watches his neighbors out the window from the seat of the loo. He sees only a mundane scene of domestic suburbia: a girl catching a butterfly, a mother and father standing in the middle of a driveway. But the close-ups are uncannily unflinching and open, devoid of judgment or commentary. “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking”, Isherwood famously wrote in Goodbye to Berlin (1939). These are the scenes where the film approaches the novel’s original Buddhist incantations, where the chasm of grief opens not onto nihilistic emptiness, but toward the sublime. Building from such moments, George finds himself—despite his ultimate intentions—increasingly seduced by the inexorable, enchanting drive of life.

Ultimately, there are flaws to this kind of expressive, drenched filmmaking. Colour saturation is cranked up like a volume dial when George reaches his strongest epiphanies—a bold and original gesture, but one that can seem contrived and manipulated. There are also one too many a mascara’d eyelash and shots of rippling bodies, a tendency that reaches its excessive peak in a scene where two immaculate, shirtless men play slow-motion tennis. These moments are perhaps best read as Ford’s attempt to capture the sensuality and eroticism of Isherwood’s novel, but their delivery borders on the parodic, distorting the emotional intensity of the film. In Ford’s world, doubtless influenced by his forays into fashion, the beautiful body rather than the charm of flaw comprises moments of disclosure.

Despite these minor slips, though, Ford reaches something truly resonant, for his film convincingly portrays one man’s continual attempt to enter the tireless throw of life. In the end, George comes to realize that his isolated existence reaches beyond the limits of his own consciousness toward something quite wonderfully beyond his control.

Jane Han is reading for a DPhil in Fine Art at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. A Single Man will play at the London Film Festival on 16 October.