The debut feature of fashion entrepreneur/designer Tom Ford is a two-hankie affair and what is known in Hollywood as “an Academy picture.” Harvey Weinstein proved that his Oscar radar is back online when he scooped up A Single Man at Toronto. I’d bet it gets a half-dozen nominations and that Colin Firth, who won Best Actor at Venice, adds another trophy to his collection. This is not meant as snark: A Single Man is a rare thing—a mainstream, melancholy love story, haunted by the past and, in a particularly innovative way, by Vertigo.
Adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel of the same name (blurbed by Edmund White as “one of the first and best novels of the modern gay liberation movement”), A Single Man describes a day—November 30, 1962—in the life of George Falconer, an English professor at a small Los Angeles college who, eight months after the accidental death of Jim, his lover of 16 years, is still deep in mourning. It is the day on which George’s carefully planned suicide collides with the first stirrings of desire he’s felt since Jim’s death. The suicide plan, which doesn’t exist in the novel, is Ford’s attempt to gin up drama and the only mistake in an exceptionally convincing narrative. Said narrative is located entirely within George’s consciousness, which fuses, as real-life consciousness is wont to do, memory, fantasy, and a markedly subjective coloration of the here-and-now.
Along with variable speed motion and a variety of film stocks, coloration is Ford’s primary cinematic tool for depicting interiority. The shifts from the normal range to either an overly saturated or desaturated palette suggest that George projects the workings of his automatic nervous system and his none-too-stable blood pressure onto the world around him. As he flushes or grows pale, so do the cleanly composed, widescreen visuals. In combination with the references in Shigeru Umebayashi’s score (as affecting as his contribution to In the Mood for Love) and specific images (a scene involving a woman in a car, her hair covered by a silk scarf, where, heartbreakingly, the scent of a dog’s hair serves as the “madeleine”), this subjective use of color evokes Hitchcock’s Vertigo in a manner that seems effortless. The referencing seems simply part of daily life—and no different from choosing “Blue Moon” as the song playing on the jukebox when George and Jim fall in love at first sight.
These supple variations on conventional film language might have seemed merely stylish, were it not for Firth’s performance. Ford can’t resist dressing his protagonist—as he does George’s longtime companion (Matthew Goode) and the two exquisite young men who catch his eye (Nicholas Hoult and Jon Kortajarena)—in lovingly tailored, perfectly fitting clothes. Firth, however, like Cary Grant, has a face and a body that make you aware of the flesh and its vulnerabilities. The flashback sequence where George receives the telephone call informing him of Jim’s death, and, by the way, that George isn’t welcome at the funeral which is for family only, is almost entirely composed of a single unbroken take. We see George’s face freeze in shock and then dissolve into grief as the realization that he has lost the love of his life overcomes him. It is an amazing piece of acting and, also, a display of trust on the part of Ford, who has the courage not to cut away or gussy it up.
As intelligent and moving as A Single Man is, and as eloquently as it depicts the gay closet of the early Sixties, it feels like a film filtered through the sensibility of its director rather than through a commitment to an idea or a world view. That Ford, as director, may not yet have a place from which he speaks could be why A Single Man seems so heavily marked by Hitchcock. Ford didn’t need the faded billboard for Psycho hanging over the parking lot where George sweetly rejects the come-on of a Latino hustler. Still, I’m grateful to him for indirectly confirming my long-held theory that buried within Vertigo is the story of a cop who falls for a transvestite, and that the “crime” in which he is implicated is not murder but gay love.