Review: A Single Man (2009)

"I wanted this not to be a gay story or a straight story but to be a human story." --Tom Ford

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I don’t really care much about fashion.  It’s just not one of those things I find to be interesting or important.  I hear the word “Prada” and the first thing I think of is Meryl Streep.  But despite my complete and utter ignorance about this element of Western culture, I wasn’t surprised to learn that A Single Man director Tom Ford is the former creative director of Gucci and now runs his own fashion label.  Who else would be able to combine framing, color and design into such memorable imagery?

Indeed, even if you walk away from Ford’s directorial debut feeling let down by the overall product, it can’t be denied that the man has a gift for the aesthetic.  The film is set in the early 1960s and follows George Falconer (Colin Firth), a gay university professor struggling to cope with the death of his partner Jim (Matthew Goode).  It’s been eight months since the fatal car crash, and George has decided that he can’t take the grief anymore.  Today will be his last day before committing suicide.  It’s a bleak premise, and the cinematography acts as a visual representation of George’s spirit.  Most scenes are filled with desaturated blues, browns and grays – a colorless world for a dead soul.  But every once in a while, George encounters a simple event that will literally brighten up his day.  The sight of shirtless tennis players glimmering in the heat, a conversation with a Spanish male prostitute, the feel of a puppy’s fur against his palm… these everyday sights and sounds take on a special kind of poignancy, for this may be the last time he experiences them.  In these moments, the color palette is suddenly oversaturated and viewers are bombarded with an overabundance of reds, blues and greens.  This is George’s ecstasy, and Ford’s cinematography invites the audience to feel it alongside him.

How appropriate, then, that the dominant image of the film is that of eyes.  There are constant close-ups and cutaways to characters’ peepers looking, examining, embracing the world around them.  This is a film about experience, so much of which is captured through the casual sense of seeingA Single Man reminds us that sight is not something to be taken for granted; of all our senses, it is the one through which we are most fully able to connect to life and those around us.  It is through a glance of longing that George first encounters Jim.  It is by watching his neighbors that he feels a twinge of jealousy for their “normal” family life.  It is through the act of seeing the images onscreen that we, the audience, catch a glimpse of his soul.    

That this film has failed to receive controversy in the same vein of Brokeback Mountain is a testament to Tom Ford’s writing and directing.  Whereas the issue of homosexuality was at the forefront of Brokeback, Ford manages to simultaneously make it the most important and least important feature of A Single Man.  Colin Firth deserves all the awards attention he is getting because his performance captures this paradox perfectly.  In his face we see a man crushed by the prospect of mortality, struggling to cope with the loss of a soul mate.  In his eyes we see someone whose grief simultaneously overshadows his identity as a homosexual while accentuating it even more.  His entire identity is built around not that which he has but that which he does not have: a partner with whom he can share all the joys, troubles and tribulations of life as part of an invisible minority.  He has friends like Charley (Julianne Moore) who can offer him some basic form of human connection, but without a lover – specifically, a gay lover – he is essentially alone.  The process of mourning is one we can all relate to, regardless of sexual orientation, and yet his experience as a gay man has undoubtedly marked his psyche in a way others will never understand. 

The primary flaw of A Single Man is its final scene, which feels thematically out-of-place compared to the rest of the film.  It’s jarring enough to leave an unsatisfied taste in the mouth, but even so it can’t diminish the strange beauty of what came before it.  Tom Ford is definitely a filmmaker to keep an eye on.  Even though A Single Man shows a few signs of immature filmmaking, it’s a well-done character studies and examination of grief, a poignant reminder that sometimes the most tragic things in life have their own strange beauty.