Dec 13, 2009
A Single Man
A Single Man is based on a story by Christopher Isherwood. It's a gay movie. It is a mainstream gay movie. I was thinking, when did this happen? Since when do we have a mainstream movie with bona fide actors about the personal story of a gay man? Okay, since Brokeback Mountain, but somehow this one feels more authentic. This one has no big heroics or politics or didactics or speechifying, or trying to make the audience feel guilty or outraged or good about itself. It's not something like last year's Milk, the Gandhi of gays, which cunningly couched the gayness in the all-American tropes of heroism and individual glory, and got some well deserved prizes along the way.
A Single Man is private and devastating. Considering that it is fashion designer Tom Ford's first film, it is pretty impressive. He successfully creates an atmosphere, not so much of a time where objects were so much more beautiful, the early sixties, but rather of the stifling, utterly sad funk of having to live a perfectly dignified life in hiding.
And for that, you need an actor like Colin Firth, with a fierce intelligence, utter control and an ocean of feeling underneath. He is perfect as college professor George Falconer, a fastidious, closeted gay man (gay and British: doubly repressed) who loses his lover of 16 years (Matthew Goode) and is devastated. The loss is devastating in itself, but is compounded by the tragedy of living a secret life when you have done nothing to deserve the shame.
Falconer must keep his grief mostly to himself, as he is not able to share it openly. He is kept in the dark about the loss until a disembodied male voice over a telephone has the charitable gallantry of informing him there's been an accident, several days after the fact. He is not invited to the funeral. Of his partner of 16 years. Yet the movie does not express outrage. It creates the emotional atmosphere of shattering loss without pity or sentimentality.
For the role, Firth lost some girth and he looks better than ever, unbearably stylish, sporting immaculate clothes, a fabulous haircut and big black rimmed glasses (you want to ravish him). To watch him with Julianne Moore, who plays his best friend Charlotte, is to see the contrasting styles of British and American acting of the highest caliber. Moore is terrific as an old friend and British boozer who is in love with him, a lonely, hysterical woman grasping at straws. Feeling oozes through her pores, loose and frightening. With him is the opposite. It's all bottled up. They are both fabulous together.
Colin Firth is not particularly handsome, but he has that which makes women melt: there is warmth and vulnerability underneath the icy smartness, and we all want to coax it out of him. Like all good British thespians, he acts with his voice. He infuses a line like, "Nobody else calls me before 8 in the morning, Charlotte" with so much personal history, it is almost shocking, funny and heartbreaking. He is magnificent.
Everything looks beautifully art directed, as one might expect from a fashion designer. The movie made me horribly nostalgic for the beauty of solid state objects when I was growing up: the rotary phones, the gleaming vending machines, the fabulous sixties furniture, things made of metal and wood, things made to last. Ford has chosen a style that tries to convey the claustrophobic, suffocating anxiety of Falconer's grief, as he zeroes in on the details, which is I suppose how gay men in those days were able to make sense of who were friends and foes in the world. It's also how things feel when you are dying of grief. The focus changes to the trees instead of the forest, so you can survive the day. Sometimes the stylishness seems to get a little in the way, but the respect for the emotions and their authenticity never wavers. It's an adult, mature movie, which is very generous and moves me deeply. I really appreciate it, someone in America making such a film.
Also, all that sexual repression is terribly sexy. Sexual tension is all about delayed gratification, and in this movie there is no obvious gratification. The gratification comes from small, furtive gestures, sometimes it seems only from surprising gratitude at finding a fellow traveler. When a male student shows interest in him, even at his lowest point of desperation, Falconer knows better than to yield, even though he is immensely touched by the attention. He does not act on that unbearable frisson of passion under the surface, yet it's all there. The tension between his desire and his experience is palpable. This is very sexy.
I don't know about straight men or gay men, but women are going to swoon.