This post may contain spoilers and large images that may compromise slower internet connections. Read at your own discretion.
American fashion designer Tom Ford‘s adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel, A Single Man, is his strong directorial debut. Clearly exhibiting the many layers of Ford’s talent, it is an art house film through and through in its approach, what with each scene meticulously planned to the smallest of details, providing the viewer with visual candy with every frame in addition to a wonderful but sad story.
The span of time covered by “A Single Man” is one day, and is set on November 30th, 1962, around a month after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Based on this, there is a strong presence of paranoia among the citizens, although on the outside, there seems to be no incident to the naked eye. But there seems to be more than just the fear of being roughly pulled away from the idyllic image of safety. The main character, George Falconer (spectacularly portrayed by Colin Firth), is a gay British college professor living in California, during a time when the acceptance of the homosexuals is probably not as progressive as today. George is struggling to come to terms with the death of Jim (played by Matthew Goode), his partner of sixteen years. Due to the fact the film spans a single day’s events, the use of flashbacks interspersed with present day scenes are used to provide the context to the George’s life before the tragedy.
George wakes up, after having dreamt of being immersed in water and then walking across an abandoned and snow-filled area to lie next to and kiss the bloodied and glassy-eyed corpse of his lover. He reaches to his left, and after sadly remembering the bed space permanently devoid of Jim, he realises he has fallen asleep while writing. There is spilled ink on the sheets. He gets up and proceeds to carry through a very organised morning routine, admitting the person dressing up for the the day is an impression of the George that was.
Yet there appears to be little hints that something is different about this particular day. People around him remark that he doesn’t look well. From minor inconveniences such as the frozen loaf of bread that cost George a proper breakfast to suddenly grabbing his chest as he leaves his room, he reciprocates these signs with grand gestures of spending a little extra time chatting up everyone he encounters. Uncharacteristic yet sincere words go to his housekeeper Alba, the secretary at the college where he lectures, a Spanish model with a chiselled jawline, and even one of his more enthusiastic students. It is then revealed that his grief is too much for him to bear; he has concocted a suicide plan, and plans to follow through that day. Those words are final goodbyes.
The methodical steps George takes in carrying out the steps borders that of a religious rite. They’re so carefully thought through and timed, as though every single movement serves to compensate every increment in which he feels his soul has died. In between a seemingly ordinary day, he empties his safety deposit box, buys bullets of his gun, clears out his desk at his workplace, and tries to cancel his dinner appointment with his best friend, Charley, a character so wonderfully carried out by my favourite actress, Julianne Moore.
In between all these events are the flashbacks. Most of them happen during a much happier time for George and Jim, the happier moments being the seemingly simpler moments, where George reveals a lot more about himself. Jim is killed in a vehicular accident out of state. George receives the news through a cousin, and although he makes an offer to travel to the funeral, but is denied, saying the service is for family only. Feeling patently alone, he rushes upstairs to Charley — who happens to live nearby — for comfort. But it is later revealed that she has to do some damage control in her own life.
He decides to meet Charley for their dinner appointment, and in spite of trying to make things appear normal between the both of them, he is using that particular opportunity to say goodbye to her. The two have the type of friendship that appears usual for a straight woman and a gay man, except that they have slept together. In yet another flashback, Jim asks about that, and George considers it to be a previous life, saying he falls in love with men. On the other hand, Charley still battles those unrequited feelings, as those sexual encounters with George hold emotional weight to her. Though now divorced and away from her fully-grown son, she dodges the confrontation of her loneliness through the vices of smoking, drinking, and long periods of wallowing in self-pity.
However, even George’s suicide plan is not without numerous hiccups. He gets constantly blind-sided. But it is through these mishaps where George manages to see the colour in those unusual connections. He gains the determination to cope with his tragic situation and peace finds him.
If one would watch this film on mute, it is a visual feast in itself. “A Single Man” is crafted to look as though every single frame of the film can be dissected into individual and veritable photographic captures. Cinematographer Eduard Grau‘s use of toned out hues of basic colours as well as the palettes popular in the sixties immediately can transport the viewer back to almost half a century ago.
One of the things that seem to stick out about this film is that when George Falconer is alone, the colours that are used are very muted. As shown in the above screen captures, the colours stay in the earthy hues such as browns, greens, and deep ocean blues, pocked with monochromatic accents. When George interacts with another human being, colours emerge in less “natural” versions of these hues, as shown below. Bright reds, yellows, and teal light up the screen as though hope springs anew in George’s dreary existence.
Those in the design industry or have an appreciation for aesthetics will enjoy the various design elements that pop out during the occasional scene. On George’s dressing table, there is Bereavement by Dior. Charley’s apartment is pregnant with ornate and breath-taking decor, from the lamps in her bedroom, to the sheets that drape her vanity area, to even the fruit trees that flank the hallway leading to her living room. There is the re-introduction of the typography and graphic design of the yesteryears, shown below. Most especially, Tom Ford’s fashion designs are well on display here, notably the George’s day suit. The use of aesthetic symmetry and these cultural references give away a very artsy atmosphere.
The house used as George Falconer’s house is designed by the the late John Lautner. The American architect designed the modernist Schaffer Residence in 1949 and is located in Glendale, California. Complete with two bedrooms, a two-car garage, and 1.5 baths, it is a house rich in angles, wood, and openness to the natural environment it is built on.
From what I have been reading online regarding this house, the property is currently on sale.
The acting is spectacular. In the few films I have watched starring Colin Firth, I find his acting to be usually rigid, though impeccable in execution. Seeing him take on a role that makes him lay bare his vulnerabilities and allow himself to give into moments of chaos is so refreshing.
However, it is not just Firth that makes a big impression in “A Single Man”. Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Charley is almost beyond words. Perhaps I am biased, as she is my favourite actress, but her take on Charley is almost tactile, as though she could step out of the screen at any minute. Charley is a pitiful character. She is a woman who has lost her husband and her child to divorce and to the pains of an empty nest, and in turn, her desperation is masked by the ostentatious world she builds in her own home and the idealised heterosexual relationship she long pines for with George. Though a sad story, I did not shed any tears when watching this film, but it proved to be a slightly difficult feat whenever Charley and her hair make their presence known on the screen.
“A Single Man” is a film of class standing, and the art, architecture, fashion, hair, designs, if anything, are aspects that can easily draw in the viewer. It is a beautiful account of a lonely man’s single day, and how he eventually finds peace with his grief at a time he least expects — yet is ready for — it.
(All photos are credited to their respective artists. Click on any image to go to its source.)