WORN Cinema Society: A Single Man

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

5 thoughts on “WORN Cinema Society: A Single Man

  1. I rented this movie over the weekend and LOVED it. For me the aesthetic added to the emotionality of the story…I don’t know if I can articulate this well, but it almost felt like Colin Firth’s character was walking around in a depressed, dreamlike state, and the gorgeous images and beautiful people kind of added to the sense of surrealism and detachment that he was feeling.

    Granted, I’m also guilty of sometimes preferring style over substance in my movies.


  2. I tend to lean in favour of aesthetics, too – but there does seem a point where I feel like, “What the hell is the point?” This is a narrative film – story counts.

    (To be completely off-topic, no one brings out that feeling in me more than Wes Anderson and it increases with every movie he makes. It’s like he’s become so focused on creating a visually perfect film – I’d say he very nearly has – he’s forgotten he’s meant to be communicating on other levels.)

    I’m looking forward to watching this movie (and yes, I am one of those who will be forever smitten with the “impenetrable Mr. Darcy”), but I am always wary of anything involving Tom Ford. You know, it’s hard to be on the same planet with that guy without tripping over his ego…

  3. I saw this movie in theatres a few months ago, and recently listened to Terry Gross interview Ford and Firth about the film on an NPR “Fresh Air” podcast. I had the same intial impression as Anisha – it’s was so stylish it felt like a two-hour perfume ad. BUT, listening to Ford discuss his creative decisions – down to such considerations as giving George a Savile Road suit from 1957 becuase of factors X, Y and Z was extremely compelling. Not to mention the superb acting by Firth. I’m actually keen to rent it and watch it again after listening to those interviews.

    Here’s a link to Firth’s interview: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128381892

    And Ford’s: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128380389

  4. Interesting review. It’s good that, even though you are critical, you make me want to see it for myself. I wonder if Mr. Ford can tone down the beauty, if he wants to keep directing, or if he doesn’t know how.

  5. Thanks Sara, those interviews are really interesting. I agree, they do want to make me re-watch it. Though, I guess for me, the extreme thoughtfulness in Ford’s choices is not surprising. These are such heavily constructed images that a lack of consideration for the details, and any and all thinking behind them, would have surprised me.

    I feel the issue here is a balance between aesthetics & narrative. Point-positive is the pacing of the film (which I didn’t touch on). It is dense and slow in bits when it shouldn’t be. A smart editor would have sliced into the project a little, but you get the sense that the tough choices were not made, lest some beautiful compositions ended up on the cutting room floor. Jacyln, you do have a point, I got that sense too. However, for me it just became a little much.

    But, you’re right Max, I do feel people should see it for themselves. Just because it is some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in quite a while. There are frames of this film that will take your breath away.

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