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CIFF 2009: "A Single Man" (Tom Ford, USA)

 

At its weakest moments, A Single Man feels like an advertisement for some non-existent film also called A Single Man—a long, long trailer for a serious drama with literary origins. The images seem to have a gloss to them, like magazine paper, and we are treated to a string of portentous clocks, animals and reflections. But if it's possible to recommend a film solely on the basis of a few scenes, or a few stray shots, edits, sounds, or ideas, then I'll recommend A Single Man over many other films. Why? Because despite Julianne Moore's terrible British accent, there's her face and the tone of her voice, and despite Nicholas Hoult, there's the way Colin Firth looks at him, and despite the family next door there's Matthew Goode, and, despite every element of the film that is facile or narrowminded, there are the moments that are unbendingly intelligent.

But really, if I were to pick out what was commendable about A Single Man, I'd pick a scene completely extraneous to its deathly serious plot. Firth pulls up at a liquor store beside a billboard advertising Psycho. On the way in, he sees a handsome stranger talking on the phone; on the way out, they bump into each other. The stranger drops his cigarettes and Firth spills his booze all over them. He offers to buy a new pack and smokes two cigarettes with the man, first by the phone booth, then on the trunk of his car. They talk in English and Spanish. The stranger thinks Firth's college professor is trying to pick him up; really, he's just struck.

It's the moment when all of director Tom Ford's sensibilities about acting, editing, images, color correction and dialogue come together, leaning on one another to form something like a house of cards that won't topple. As in a John Cook or a Jim Jarmusch film—that is, in the sort of film Wim Wenders always sets out to make but rarely does—nothing seems to happen because something is constantly happening. The stranger's lips, and the way smoke curls out of them (a bit like the way Raphael Sil smokes in Eye of the Storm—the lower lip some swamp out of which a fog rises), become an event, as does a change in the sunlight (which it took Jarmusch until The Limits of Control to discover but Ford seems familiar with right away). You can toss out the car in the snow, the Cuban Missile Crisis chattering in the background, the man contemplating suicide—just leave us the phone call, Firth and Goode basking on a rock in black & white or reading books together in their house, that nighttime swim in the ocean, the Spaniard at the liquor store or any of the other moments when the film seems struck by something it doesn’t attempt to explain.

I agree with you there are moments in this film so good you lament when it doesn’t measure up moments later. I found the shifting color timing signaling moments of passion of joy to be annoying and distracting, but like in moments with the James Dean-esque man, when Ford allows the film to get into some kind of groove and lets his actors interact, it’s remarkable.
Cahiers, I, for one, really like the use of color correction, and the way Ford has the color change within a shot; his approach vs. the way others use it is the difference between technique and technology. A little like The Mystery of Oberwald — Antonioni does a similar thing with the saturation in that movie.
But the entire thing calls too much attention to itself. I’ve seen it done in other films where it’s used far more sparingly, and if this film had saved it for a few distinct moments it would have worked. When it happens in every scene it just makes me think about it and not what’s going on. Form and technique need not be invisible, but they ought to be tied to one another. This felt unnecessary. There’s enough signaling in the film grammar. We as an audience know an extreme close-up on Nicolas Hoult with his lips parted from Firth’s point of view means certain things, we don’t need him to turn bright orange in the shot to get that.
Cahiers, Nothing wrong with calling attention. Tasteful or reserved is probably the worst thing a film can be. As for form and technique needing to be tied to each other: they’re already the same thing, with techniques being what makes up a form.
What’s going on in the scene with the Spanish hustler is obvious. But you’re straight so you know nothing about it.
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A Single Man is not what you expect and that is what I enjoyed the most. It is a beautiful love story, which highlights the love of life and the love of humanity. This character driven piece contains moments of anguish, but there are also moments of great optimism and joy. It is clearly a well-written story. The shots can appear childish at times, but I attribute that to the relatively inexperienced style of the Director of Photography. The production design stays true to the essence of the times without appearing outdated or cliché. The score for this piece is by far the best element. The music pulls the audience inside of the character and his experience. I wasn’t sure about some of the other characters because they are cheesy to the point of absurdity and also the color change seemed a little repetitive and far too contrived, but overall it was a great film. P.S. I agree with Cahiers
It’s easy to pinpoint Ford solely as an aestethicist, but don’t let prejudice and assumptions get in the way. If this was directed by another guy, I feel that the focus of all criticism would be elsewhere, and criticism itself would be much more scarce.

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