Sunday, January 3, 2010

Plural Visions

As I screened A Single Man (fashion designer Tom Ford's directorial debut), I couldn't help but notice similarities between this new film and the 2005 Ang Lee feature Brokeback Mountain. Yes, the obvious link is that both films deal with gay characters in exceedingly homophobic eras. Going beyond that, both were adapted from original works by acclaimed authors who have a tendency to fall below mainstream consciousness. Both films have stunning lead performances that completely defy expectations. In 2005, Heath Ledger proved that he was a serious actor, not just a teen heartthrob. In A Single Man, Colin Firth shows that he can do much more than play the standard uptight British romantic lead. But most importantly, A Single Man owes a debt of gratitude to Brokeback Mountain. It was bound to happen sooner or later, but Ang Lee's masterpiece had led to mainstream dramas featuring homosexual characters at the forefront, ones who defy stereotypes and aren't featured as comic relief. In short, they're--what a novelty--human beings.

A Single Man (based on the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood) depicts a day in the life of George Falconer, a British professor teaching in early 1960s California. His morning routine is steadfast, organized, and meticulous, but the overall atmosphere is tinted with crippling depression. In a series of flashbacks, the audience learns that Jim (Matthew Goode), George's lover, was killed in a car accident months before. George's sadness has obviously been going strong since then. Without much fanfare, his morning routine includes an unloaded handgun and the organization of his papers and financial documents; he's going to commit suicide. He makes evening plans with Charley (Julianne Moore), and goes to teach a course on Aldous Huxley. One of his students, Kenny (Nicholas Hout) senses a lot lying below the surface of George's rigid exterior, his homosexuality being just a part of this. George's conversations and interactions with Kenny, intimate flashbacks with Jim, an evening get-together with Charley, and a brief conversation with a Spanish male prostitute, reveal varying depths of alternating happiness and sadness.

This film offers quite a few areas of further discussion, from the acting to the production. An essential starting point is the performance of Colin Firth. My above description of his tendency to play "uptight British romantic leads" was a little tongue-in-cheek, but his performance as George completely opens up his range. He's understated, closed-in, but at the same time completely natural; the scenes requiring outbursts are perfect, since the audience never doubts the emotions that are almost literally simmering beneath the surface. The character of George is required to be isolated, but also more open when he has to be (interacting with clerks, teaching his class). This range is pulled off impeccably. One of the many key scenes involves his Huxley class. Firth gives a stirring lecture on the fear of minorities, with the Cold War and Communism being the likely intentions, given the time (as well as snippets of radio and TV broadcasts slipped into the film). However, the true, unspoken intention is homosexuality. Tom Ford does an excellent, careful job of camera angling in this scene, alternating between shots of George's lecture and the obviously gay students in the class.

It's surprising how little screentime Julianne Moore has as Charley, but it's the type of short performance that's bigger than its minutes. Charley is a sort of British Blanche Dubois, growing older, still maintaining an undeniable sexiness, but with slight hints of age. Her opening scene shows her in bed without any makeup, and it's an unsettling contrast when we see her later on in the film, made-up and dressed very seductively. Cigarettes and gin are the unspoken culprits of her aging, and her dialogue reveals a touching midlife crisis: she understands that she's getting older, she's lonely, and her attraction to George is more out of the want for stability than any actual romance. She know's that he's gay. At one point, she casually calls him a "poof," and the effect is shocking. It's the only spoken gay reference, slur or otherwise, in the film. She and George have been intimate before, but the dialogue reveals the reasons for this: if he were heterosexual, his career would provide the stability that she craves. It's very likely that he slept with her either out of pity or as an early attempt to combat his homosexuality.

Nicholas Haut's performance as Kenny works exceptionally well. His looks and ability to see George for who he really is might hint at the intention for audiences to think that one of them will be seduced outright. However, despite the obvious attraction, Kenny works as a sort of sounding board for George as they share views on life and experience. Curiously, this intellectual connection leads to what turns out to be the poorest part of A Single Man--the ending. Matthew Goode does what he can with limited flashback scenes as Jim. The stability of their relationship is presented as comfortable and loving. There is an age difference, which is discussed in a particular humorous scene, but there's no denying that had George died first, it wouldn't have been any less devasting. The key is their personalities; Jim would have dealt with this devastation in a much different manner.

If one had to "rank" the importance of the people involved in this film, either in front of or behind the camera, the top three would not be complete if it didn't include cinematographer Eduard Grau. It's not an overstatement to say that his work adds layers to every scene. The colors and shadows, not to mention the sometimes "grainy" shots, are full evocations of the 1960s, creating a wonderful, sometimes subliminal feeling that the film was shot in that era, not in the 2000s. Some scenes are marked by slight color changes, from full color to a sort of tinted, sepia tone. These normally indicate emotional shifts in the action, and are done tastefully. Instead of being distracting, they're still noticeable, but essential to the changes in the film. Given Tom Ford's eye for detail as a fashion designer, and the fact that he's a first time director, one wouldn't be faulted for assuming that he'd "overdirect" and add too many visual flourishes. Thankfully, Ford and Grau keep these to a minimum.

A particularly great example is the conversation between George and the Spanish prostitute (Jon Kortajarena). The backdrop is both a billboard for Alfred Hitchock's Psycho, with emphasis on Janet Leigh's eyes, as well as a smog-tinted Los Angeles sunset. The scene is both a reference to the era, with Grau's cinematography and the set design, but also (as my friend Eric pointed out) an homage to Pedro Almodovar. Tom Ford lets it be known that he's not a complete newcomer to film. The scene is shot perfectly, with little touches that work as tips of the hat to established and historical directors. For the most part, Ford lets the actors do their jobs, and he supports the performances with excellent uses of camera shots. A lot of the focus is on the eyes of the speakers, creating a close, almost claustrophobic tightness, but also allowing the given actor's face to fill in subconscious details.

This was one of the best films of 2009. It's nowhere near perfect (again, the ending defies expectations, but unlike the rest of the film, the defiance doesn't have a postive effect). Some of Ford's shots, namely a few of George's nightmare sequences, seem too intentionally "cinematic." But the film as a whole is elevated by some of the best cinematography in recent memory, as well as the inspired casting. The veterans (Firth and Moore) are exceptionally terrific, and the lesser known actors (Hout and Goode) hold their own. Also, it's another step in the right direction for homosexual depictions in film. Years ago, this film very well may have been a cultural landmark, but now, it's a moving portrait that emphasizes human frailty and love, regardless of any viewer's orientation. The signs may point to this being an "art film," but this award season, it will be getting a lot of mainstream attention.

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