CIFF 2009: A Single Man (2009)

Director: Tom Ford

2009 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

A lot has been made about superstar fashion designer Tom Ford entering the movie business with his own production company, Fade to Black. Now we have Fade to Black’s first film and Ford’s directorial debut, an adaptation of the 1964 Christopher Isherwood novel A Single Man. Although Ford costumed Colin Firth, who plays the title character George Falconer, and his eye for fashion photography is apparent, this is not the work of a dilettante. A Single Man is a slightly acerbic, affecting look at an emotion—deep grief—that is more closeted today than its gay protagonist was during the film’s 1962 setting.

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The film opens on a snowy landscape in which we gaze down and move in on an overturned car and the body of a man half out of the vehicle, laying on his back. A figure moves into the frame and stoops down to examine the body. The eyes are fogged; the man is unmistakably dead. The figure, George Falconer, leans over and gingerly kisses the man on the lips. We, like George, are suddenly pulled into present time as he awakens with a start from this dream. In voiceover, George says he dreads waking up, that it actually hurts. Only in his dreams can he be with Jim (Matthew Goode), his beloved partner of 16 years who died eight months before in a car crash in his native Denver.

George prepares for his day teaching English literature at a Los Angeles college in a bit of a daze. Memories of Jim intercut reality. He remembers when they moved into George’s glass house and Jim tried to hold and kiss George. George was worried the neighbors would see them, but Jim says, “We’re invisible,” in an oblique statement about being gay. The real world intrudes again as Charlotte (Julianne Moore), George’s old friend from London and current neighbor in a tony part of Santa Monica, phones to invite him over for dinner. He demurs, but then reconsiders. “What time?” “7 o’clock.” George hangs up, looks fruitlessly in his refrigerator for something to eat, and pulls a loaf of bread out of the freezer. He bangs it on the counter. Frozen solid. Close up of a cup of coffee and George filling his briefcase with the novel Time Must Have a Stop by Isherwood buddy Aldous Huxley and the teaching materials that go with it, and an empty revolver. His maid Maria (Marlene Martinez) arrives to clean up. She is worried about how unwell he looks. George chides her for keeping his bread “too fresh” in the freezer and then, uncharacteristically, tells her how much he values her.

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George feels useless—uninspired and uninspiring to his TV-addicted, conventional students. In class, he carries out his lecture and discussion on autopilot—Ford doesn’t even show us most of the class, preferring to linger seductively on a blonde in the front row who looks the world like Claudia Schiffer and her male companion Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). George launches into a speech about fear, fear of the unknown, the different, the Other. After class, Kenny runs after George, asking him why he doesn’t lecture like that all the time. “It would be misunderstood,” George says about his elliptical way of not quite declaring he is a gay man who is suffering the grevious loss of his partner. He questions Kenny about his girlfriend. Kenny denies they are a couple: “The last thing I want to talk about is Lois.” He invites George for a drink. “Not today. I’m going away.”

George goes to his bank and empties his safe deposit box. He goes to a gun shop to buy bullets. The teenage clerk notes his gun is pretty old. “We’re having a two-for-one special on handguns. Get one for the little lady?” “No, just the bullets.” He stops in the parking lot when he sees a smooth fox terrier in a car like the ones he and Jim had—they, too, died in the crash. He reaches through the window to play with it. The dog’s human comes out and indulges George until he starts smelling the dog. “Like buttered toast.” Off he goes to put his affairs punctiliously in order, lay out the clothes he wishes to be buried in, write good-bye notes, and then shoot himself in the head.

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Ford evokes the depth of a loss that would push a man to suicide through flashbacks, dreams, and image distortions. The opening credits show a naked man floundering underwater, perhaps close to drowning or perhaps living in the water’s distorting muffle. The scenes in the present tend to be grainy, muffled, and somewhat colorless as well. The set decoration is precise to period detail, but in a way, this is almost a distraction, as George’s story is unmistakably universal and timeless. The one place where period detail works beautifully is the night in 1946 when George and Jim meet at an overflowing gin joint near George’s home. The celebratory postwar atmosphere and Jim looking so handsome in his Navy whites really evoke a time and place that synchs well with this first blush of love.

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Ford also is obsessed with close-ups, particularly of eyes. In one scene he lingers over Moore painting the thick 60s eyeliner on one eye for what seems an eternity. In another, he has George park his Mercedes in front of two enormous eyes, shown in the screencap above. I guessed whose they were; give it a try. I’m not sure Ford accomplished much with the recurring visual except an extreme sense of intimacy that started to feel forced.

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The characters of Kenny and Charlotte also feel forced. Kenny seems to be coming on to George for what can only be called the classic father-son gay relationship that was an integral part of gay culture at the time. (Indeed, George calls Jim modern and sure of himself for never having slept with a woman.) The sensuous, lingering shots of Hoult’s face seem merely advertising-seductive, but his character backs it up with a nighttime skinny dip in the ocean, echoing Jim’s comment about being invisible for the skittish George. Charlotte gives Julianne Moore yet another opportunity to play yet another uninteresting, rich housewife; this time she goes from having a whiff of the fag hag about her to playing the full-blown version. Does Moore keep getting cast in these terrible roles because that’s really all she can do? Come on, Julianne, show us some more of your stuff.

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Colin Firth, who is in every scene, carries this movie like Atlas. He’s neither too tragic, nor too flip. His bitterness is matched by a sardonic sense of humor. When he upbraids Charlotte for telling him it would have been nice for him to have a real relationship, he reveals the depth of his love and commitment to Jim and his rage at it not being legitimate in the eyes of the majority like nothing I’ve seen. This is a subtle allusion, I imagine, to the contemporary battle for gay marriage that has polarized the country. His final scene is heart-rending and appropriately romantic, if a bit old-fashioned. Firth had me at hello and kept me riveted right to the end.

  • Pat spoke:
    20th/10/2009 to 4:04 pm

    Marilyn –
    Fine write up, as always. This in one I want to see, espcially after having just watched the fine documentary “Chris and Don” about Ishewood’s 35-year partnership with the much younger artist, Don Bachardy. (Well, actually I’d like to read some of Isherwood’s work, but given how long it takes me to get around to reading anything, I’ll get to this movie much sooner.) Besides, I adore Colin Firth – a very fine actor.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/10/2009 to 4:21 pm

    Thanks, Pat. It’s really a good film. I was excited when it was added to the CIFF line-up. Shane left his ticket to Chabrol’s Bellamy at home, and the screening was sold out. So I got him a ticket to see this with me, and we both agreed that this probably was the better bet, as strange as that sounds. BTW, do you know whose eyes those are above?

  • Kathryn spoke:
    21st/10/2009 to 12:04 pm

    Hey Marilyn,
    By coincidence, I’ve just read the book this was based on for my book club so I was very interested to read your review of the film. I couldn’t imagine how they could pull a full-length feature from so slim (and interior) a novel. Sounds like they created a lot of backstory, not to mention radically (and I mean radically) changing the ending.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/10/2009 to 1:04 pm

    Hi Kathryn. How are you? I don’t think they changed the ending. I just have a certain interpretation of it. But I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know for sure.

  • Jed spoke:
    5th/11/2009 to 4:30 pm

    This is the kind of review that would bring ordinary moviegoers’ confidence back to critics – its informative, well-written and intelligent.
    You just made me more excited to see this film and to really do my best when I interview some of the cast very soon!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/11/2009 to 5:07 pm

    Thanks, Jed, and thanks for dropping by. I always try my best.

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