Wednesday, May 5, 2010

One Is The Loneliest Number

A Single Man(2009)Directed By Tom Ford

Is it too late to add "A Single Man" to the list of best films of last year? I hope not.
"A Single Man" takes us through the stream of consciousness mind of a newly single 52 year old gay college English professor living in Los Angeles during the Cuban missile crisis. The eponymous single man Colin Firth has decided to kill himself, still grief stricken over the sudden death of his boyfriend of 16 years. He is alert and functional, but emotionally drowning. The color scheme of the film is largely flat, dull, tones, until American fashion designer and first time film director Tom Ford wants us to focus on something which catches Firth's attention like shirtless young men playing tennis, the red lipstick of a secretary, or the color of one of his students blue eyes, by painting them in luminous color. Much of the film is just Firth going through a typical day but soaking in the little details of the world for the last time. Naturally it begins to feel like the first time.Though the story and dialog are nothing spectacular, the direction, performances, music and editing are immaculate. Some might say this is style over substance, but I can't really see what if anything would have been substantial about such a story. The Cuban Missile crisis as backdrop is arbitrary at the level of plot, but metaphorically as the national moment of uncertainty, doubt, and doom it suits Firth's quietly suicidal melancholy perfectly. This is one of those movies were ostensibly "nothing happens", and more often than not were forced to frustratingly observe Firth's constant sensual gaze and seemingly indestructible sexual tension, when we'd wish he'd just give himself permission to enjoy life, sex, and the invitations around him. Then again "[his] heart has been broken", and as he shouts at Julianne Moore he is not seeking a "substitution" for what he's lost. Somethings are irreplaceable.In one scene Firth and a student with a crush on him, go skinny dipping in the ocean at night. One of those "let's break out of the monotony of our lives and do something crazy" moments, that had me wondering if the film weren't in fact, just as trite as I had imagined at my most skeptical moments. Instead of a playful, carefree scene of splashing, we see only choppy waves and distant figures, and before we can really see what's going on Firth is being dragged back on shore with a gash in his head. The ocean does not care that these people wish to be free and spontaneous. The ocean has no opinions whatsoever. Little details like that, little moments have to be taken into greater account in a film like this, because there are no great plot turns that announce themselves as significant, and no definitive moment that changes all that has come before. We learn more and more about a character, as the film goes on, but nothing shocking or surprising. "I am exactly what I appear to be, if you look closely enough" says Firth at one point.The flashbacks do not communicate to us all the odds and ends of Firth's past relationship, they flutter around important moments (at least to him), the first time they met, a vacation with a scenic view, the notification of the death, the last time they spoke of death not long before the accident, etc. All we learn from this is that these are the things which Firth thinks about, but through seeing them with him, we begin to feel as he does; to experience the world with waves of painful memories lapping over us of their own accord. Besides that their relationship isn't really important anymore, the boyfriend is dead after all, only Firth, his friends, and phantoms all that's left. If their relationship doesn't seemed fleshed out, it's because it's no longer made of flesh.The ending left something to be desired, there are clues throughout the film certainly (every one's comments on Firth's appearance, "my watch is broken", etc), but it is unsatisfying (even if that is the point). "A Single Man" is neither hopeless or optimistic, it's a highly stylized bitter sweet trip through fleeting sensations of being alive in the present and the constant pangs of wishing you could re-experience the past. Some point out that if Firth were not gay and in the 60's he would be able to vent his grief in healthy ways, and though that certainly compiles Firth's distance from the world, like Andrie Tarkovsky's "Solaris" or Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine" or so many "I wish you were here" themed films, it's speaks to a more universal sense of loss; the loss of love to time, and life to regret.


dustin said...

I was skeptical about seeing this film but after reading your review, I'll give it a go now. Great write up as always.

Ben said...

Dustin was skeptical. I had no interest what so ever. But you sir, might have turned me around on this one.