Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Single Man

Is this a joke? The thought periodically flickered through my mind as I watched A Single Man. Fashion designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut is an immaculately serious character piece about George Falconer, a gay English professor in the early 1960s mourning the loss of his lover while carefully planning out what appears to be his suicide. And while I tell myself Ford must be taking this seriously, his excessive stylistic flourishes—pushing into realms of grotesque self-parody—give me cause to doubt.

The problem is that the film begs for a lighter touch. Instead, Ford smothers this slender, delicate story beneath a great red velvet curtain of ART, a crushing weight that grinds melancholy down into melodrama. Ford instills every moment with such gravity that absurdity is the inevitable outcome, even if not the original intent.

And perhaps the film could have worked as an over-the-top satire on repression and homophobia in the pre-sexual revolution era, except that the film bounces between poles of somberness and silliness without ever really settling on either. But my gut tells me Ford was going for something personal and heartfelt here, only to be sabotaged by his own childish giddiness at his new-found cinematic toys. For this story to achieve the grace it aspires to would require a subtlety and restraint not found in this world of garish close-ups, shifting colour palate, and slash-happy editing.

In the litany of bad choices made by this film, the burdensome, omnipresent score deserves special mention. Films unable draw out emotion through other means will often overuse music as a crutch for the deficiencies of performance and script, but in A Single Man, the inescapable, overwrought strings are less a crutch than a bat, beating the last bits of sincere emotion out of scenes.

The saving grace of the film is the performances. Despite some crying-in-the-rain excess early on, Colin Firth is actually quite good as George, particularly in the quieter moments, where a thin smile can say so much more than fiddling around with colour stocks. The film is at its best when the actors are allowed to play off each other, whenever Ford steps back from turning every gesture and look into a moment of unbearable sadness and simply lets the performances breathe. The simplest scenes are often the most nuanced and rewarding: George laughing and dancing with his old friend Charley (Julianne Moore, savouring every gin-soaked, bitchy moment with her character), or talking late at night with a young student (Nicholas Hoult), who reaches out to the lonely professor with a desperation that may or may not be sexual.

Such moments point to the modest yet tender and moving film this could have been—a film about the disappointments of life, about the addictiveness of loneliness and self-pity. But in this painfully arty film, style doesn’t extend the emotions buried in the story but instead substitutes for them, and rather pitifully at that. When George says he feels like he’s drowning, we know it because Ford has been smacking the audience in the face for the entire film with images of George adrift underwater. Never mind the risk of condescension inherent in such an obvious device—the sheer literalness of the image turns George’s despair into a quaint novelty. Ford treats the extreme emotions of the story with a mixture of overly pious respect and sarcastic dismissal. He seems not so much interested in exploring the depths of human experience as he is simply bemused that people feel anything at all.

But if we can't have a modest beauty, could we at least have a grand farce? Morbid humour appears in isolated moments like traces of a far livelier film long since smothered beneath lumbering self-importance. When George engages in an extended bit of comic business involving finding a comfortable position in which to blow his brains out—culminating bizarrely with him climbing inside a sleeping bag—the mordant wit jolts you out of the film. Weren’t we supposed to take all of this seriously just five minutes ago?

The film appears to be cutting down its own pretensions in such scenes, which makes it all the more unfortunate moments later when Ford dives back into his washed-out art-hell for another round of stylized moping. Ford should have handed direction of the film over to whatever part of his brain was responsible for such depravity as the fantasy cutaway where George, like a wayward, piddle-happy pup, pisses all over the neighbour’s obnoxious son. Whether or not the result would have been a better film is debatable, but at least it would have possessed some verve, some hint of vitality—instead of this elegant corpse we have in its place.

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