The feeling of anticipation in a darkening movie theatre is generally universal. On this occasion I was more eager than usual. A few weeks prior I had seen a superbly edited trailer featuring a rapid succession of beautiful shots from the upcoming film, A Single Man. Being a self-proclaimed cinephile, my pulse quickened with the emotional reminders of great cinematic experiences past. Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed, but not for the reasons you’d think….
A Single Man takes place in Los Angeles at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Adapted (from a Christopher Isherwood novel of the same name), directed, and produced by legendary fashion lord and first time filmmaker Tom Ford, it is a solemn tale of a man coming to grips with the painful loss of the love of his life. Colin Firth’s heart-breaking performance is touching and the stuff the best dramas are made of (and just as an aside, it was nice to see Firth challenged by a role that was not a type-cast of Jane Austen’s impenetrable Mr. Darcy).
However, the driving force of the film is the cinematography and the overall vision of Ford as auteur. Every shot from beginning to end is, without question, absolutely beautiful. It is specifically Ford’s background in fashion as a designer, photographer, and creative director that shines through; after all, he mastered the creation of perfect images in an industry where image is everything. He brings this same attention to detail to all the visual elements in the film.
From the shock of a woman’s red lipstick, and the sweat beading on men playing tennis, to the profound ugliness of make-up plastered on a woman of a certain age, this film revels in the details. I cannot help but remember one scene in particular that occurs towards the end of the film: A shot is taken from above of Firth lying on the floor. For a few seconds a pair of shiny black shoes breaches the frame. Those shoes function as a subtle emotional signifier that I am sure, in another director’s hands, would not have existed.
But by now you must be wondering, if this movie was such a thing of beauty, why was I disappointed? Well it turns out too much beauty is not a good thing; after a while, the steady march of gorgeous images just became a distraction, competing with the narrative, rather than complementing it. As one critic put it, “[It] is overbearingly aesthetic…. [You] are not able to enter the story emotionally because of the level of the aesthetic care in each scene.” In some instances that aesthetic care feels pretentious and contrived. This is also apparent in the casting of minor characters, who are so over-the-top good looking they could only be models.
As a viewer, I want to be able to relate to the people on screen. They shouldn’t be the glossy super-humans found in magazine spreads, blank canvases to be idealized and desired. Yes, this is film and, on some level, fantasy, but Ford’s perfect specimens are more akin to waxed dolls than humans. No longer simply a better looking version of real life, their aesthetic demands so much focus, the story these characters ought to be telling gets lost.
It is imperfection and spontaneity that can make a work of beauty go from good to great; too much flawlessness is boring. But if my problem with Tom Ford’s first outing as a filmmaker is that, in his naivety, he filled it to the brim with too much pretty, well, I can’t wait for his next project.
Then we’ll see if he can learn to edit his fashion mega-lord tendencies…
- Anisha Seth