A Single Man
Solitude. It is an omnipresent state of human being. We come into this world alone. We leave alone. While we are here we are permanently and totally trapped in our physical bodies. Perhaps that is why we are so fascinated by love and spirituality, the strive for which defines our desperate attempts to defy the solitude of our single existence.
“A Single Man” (2009), the directorial debut by legendary fashion designer Tom Ford, is an opulent evocation of a man’s desperate attempt to escape his single existence. The title takes on a double meaning, referring not only to a literal solitude, but an emotional one as well.
We meet George (Colin Firth), a middle age British man living in 1962 Los Angles. He works as an English professor and lives in a beautiful apartment. His life is filled with beauty, evident as we watch him get ready for the day. Impeccable taste, spotless furnitures, subtle and artfully arranged outfit…flawless from head to toe. “By the time I’m dressed,” he looks into the mirror, “I know fully what part I’m suppose to play.” It is obvious that George has perfected his outward appearance. Meeting him for the first time, one can’t help but be envious. We only hope to be so put together ourselves.
Underneath the perfect facade, however, lies a broken man. It’s been eight months since George lost his partner of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode), in a car accident. He is overwhelmed with grief. In flashbacks we see bits and pieces of their life together, one of aged banter and joyful companionship. They lived so comfortably in each other’s presence that it is aching to watch. In one scene they sit together on the sofa and read, seperately, facing each other, legs tucked up and intertwined, a puppy snuggling lazily besides them. They speak of nothing in particular, make fun of each other’s books, and banter over whose turn it is to change the music. They look at each other… long, unabashed glances, and if there is a more full definition of happiness, I have not seen it.
However, happiness is not the pervasive tone of this movie, but rather a contrast tool that is preserved in reveries and dotted sparsely in between the dreary monotone shots of George’s real life. The story spans only one day, the significance of which is not to be missed with the sight of a revolver lying in a drawer. George goes about his last day methodically, adjusting a well-oiled routine with spontaneous outbursts of goodbyes and compliments as he gets ready for the ultimate end. He teaches a class on Aldous Huxley, and gets into an impassioned speech about fear of the minority that almost sounds like a self-confession. The students are disinterested, all except one, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), who seems to see past the words and into the man behind the glasses.
Throughout the day George meets more characters, amongst them a little girl at the bank and a gorgeous Spanish James Dean look-alike at the liquor store. Ford taps into his designer side and evocates these encounters brilliantly with colors. The palette shifts from drab neutrals into warmer, fresher shades of blues, yellows, and pinks. It’s almost as if these encounters actually physically brighten up George’s day. The colors pull George’s eyes and that of ours, into focus, and in a way energizes the film, and George’s day, making his impending choice that much more precarious.
Ford is excellent in engaging all our senses to feel that of George’s. His creative control is absolute, and there is an undeniable confidance in the precise way he uses camera angles, colors, and sound to evoke the intangible anguish and desperation that boils within George. Observe when George converses with his colleague besides a tennis court where sweaty, gorgeous young men are playing. As George steals glances at the players, the conversation slowly fades out and the thumping of heartbeats emboldens until that is all we hear. In matching imagery are close-ups of bare chests, gleaming muscles, and sweaty, touchable parts: lips, eyes, the hollow above the collarbone, the small of an arched back, all cut in rapid flashes to the rhythm of the heartbeats. It’s almost as if we are in George’s head and his thoughts have materialized into cinematography. There is nothing said, and George doesn’t give away a single lustful glance, but the desire hangs so thickly in this scene that I wondered if it’ll ever end…and how. Note one single shot of a conventional family portrait in a barn. The internal struggle is unmistakable.
And then, there is Charley (Julianne Moore). Gorgeous, lush, drunk Charley. She and George are old friends who shared a brief and distant history as lovers. He calls her kiddo and brings her gin. She arranges an elegant dinner for them in her elegant house, in which the hallway between front door to the living room is lined with orange trees, like a seductive fortress. Charley is emotional and fragile. Once married and now alone, she is trapped in her decadent house with lots of friends, and yet no one who truly has time for her. Her existence is one of solitude, and we never see her leave the house. She doesn’t even buy her own gin. She is either in bed or meticulously drawing on makeup in front of the vanity, like slipping on a familiar mask. In one shot we see her face divided, one eye fully made up and the other bare, it’s probably the closest we ever get to the real Charley.
The relationship between George and Charley is one that is often seen in real life, but rarely in cinema. It is a fascinating look into the relationship between a straight woman and a gay man, especially one that retains more of the traditionally masculine qualities. Such a friendship can be very rewarding, as there is no sexual competition and advances, and both parties can easily enjoy the simple fruits of friendship without worrying about its usual downfalls. However, that in itself also lies the danger of misperception, and a woman naturally gets the short end of the stick in such an arrangement. For a gay man is not likely to find a woman sexually attractive, but a straight woman can easily become physically attracted to an outwardly masculine gay man, especially one projected onto the intimacies of a great friendship. It is the sculpture of the perfect man, really. And that is what took place between George and Charley. To her, he’s everything she ever wanted in a companion, or so she thinks. To him, she is a dear friend that he once tried to “have a go” with before meeting his true love, and that he knows. When it boils down to the core, George and Charley are just two lonely souls that long to be connected, to someone, somehow, in some meaningful way. For without that, what is life worth living for?
There is something to be said for something so beautiful. Every single frame of “A Single Man” could be mistaken for a postcard, and even as pure eye candy it succeeds. Fortunately, it is much more than that. Ford evokes an atmosphere of suburbia nostalgia in a repressed time. Firth powerfully convinces us of a man who is seething with desperation to break out of the meaningless cocoon that has become of his life, and yet is so socially shackled that he doesn’t quite know how to make damage. Moore is flawless in her brief outburst as a middle age woman in stasis.
The only blemish I spotted is, perhaps, that it is too beautiful to be absorbed as deeply as I wanted to. The people hurt, but look so flawless while doing so, that it is hard to imagine what a smile and glance in the right direction wouldn’t resolve. Or perhaps that is the irony of it all, that even their flaws are too perfectly covered to be identified with. And then there is the interplay between desire and grief, which I wish Ford would have explored further. It is clear that George feels both, but how he rationalizes one against the other is never quite illustrated. In the last quarter of the film, in fact, he seems positively indecisive on what he wants, which may be fine in itself, but for a man like George, on a day like that day, it is never just a simple indecision. Peeling back the layers of those struggles would have paved way to a more satisfactory conclusion.
In the end though, this is a look at a single man, in a single day, with a single end in mind. But it may as well have been any other person on any other day. There is a single man in all of us, and he is lonely. We can’t undo the physical boundaries of his solitude, but we can do something about the emotional boundaries. That, perhaps, is the only one worth the effort.