Effacing the Music: The Annihilating Style of ‘A Single Man’

Colin Firth in ‘A Single Man’ (2009), dir. Tom Ford

Tom Ford’s 2009 film A Single Man, based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Isherwood, was recently made available on Mubi. The film was critically acclaimed at the time of its release, and Colin Firth received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role as the protagonist George Falconer. The visual aspects of the film were given fulsome praise, though some were more disparaging about the film’s “over-stylised” aesthetic, suggesting it left A Single Man resembling what Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian called: ‘a 100-minute commercial for men’s cologne: Bereavement by Dior.’ This element is undeniable, sometimes comical, but its effects on the film are paradoxical and unsettling. They insert a false note that destabilises the film’s intended mood in a number of ways, something hinted at by Roger Ebert’s mention of the façade in his own review of the film.

George is an English literature professor living in California during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. He is gay, discreet but not closeted, and is still grieving over the death of his partner, Jim, in a car accident eight months before the events of the film. The film itself takes place over the course of a single day, a day when George has decided to kill himself and is getting his affairs in order. George goes to work, giving a class on Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, before getting de-railed to talk about the nebulous concept of ‘fear’ of the minority that haunts the American populace (fear of the communist, the homosexual, the person of colour and so on). His student Kenny (played by Nicholas Hoult) follows him after class and they discuss fear, as well as mescaline. George also visits his bank and removes his items from the safety deposit box he has, buys bullets for his revolver, and meticulously lays out on his desk letters for those close to him and important documents for those who will have to deal with his death. During this time George has a number of flashbacks, both to his childhood and to his time with Jim, a phantom who walks through the film haunting the fragile present in which George finds himself. George has dinner and drinks with his closest friend (and former lover of a kind) Charley, played by Julianne Moore, before returning home. Out of whiskey, he goes to his local bar to buy more but is followed by Kenny. The two have drinks, swim naked in the sea, and go back to George’s where they talk openly and George rediscovers a feeling for life just before a heart attack takes it away and seemingly re-unites him with Jim.

Firth and Moore both turn in excellent performances, an English eccentricity of brimming, twitching gestures, packed with chemistry. One repressed and grief-stricken, the other drunk and unfulfilled, together they sparkle like two jittery bottles of scotch hewn from teak and cork. Less fabulous is Nicholas Hoult, though this is no doubt in part due to his adopted accent, which sounds like a combination of competing voices pushed through a meat grinder. Matthew Goode’s Jim, confined to surreal and idealised flashbacks, has largely to make do with forlorn looks and long kisses, though in the fireside reading scene he is not quite able to lift the material to the place it needs to go, unlike Firth who again manages to be mastering and vulnerable at once.

But then there’s style, a feature so wrought and overwrought as to only be expressible in neon and block capitals: STYLE. The ’60s California Ford dreams up is so painstakingly vapid, so hideous with “beauty”, that at times it is impossible not to shudder. Like a Midas whose every touch transforms the world into a perfume ad, Ford smears understated browns and off-whites across the mise en scene like chocolate syrup, the kind of eye-candy that can only make one ill. This is coupled with excessive ‘power gazes’, portentous and ponderous memory-dumps, brutish close-ups of lips and mouths, and slow edits that seem to be leaving space for a tagline to slowly fade onto the screen.[1] Scenes like that of George driving in his beautiful Mercedes, watching his childhood unfold in the sunshine across the pavement, or the moment where he and a stranger smoke on the bonnet of a car against the California sunset, verge into ludicrous territory. Ultimately however the sartorial abyss acts as a flattening and annihilating force, working to smother every possible humanity from the film and its story, a heavy pathos dressed for the catwalk that never lets up even for death.

Can this be called style? On first appearance it would appear not. In a broad sense, “style” ‘includes all the important ways in which artistic “content” is expressed by the materials and forms of a given medium.’[2] It relates then to a kind of harmony between form and content, how each element of the film works as part of its structural relations and conventions. Compare A Single Man with any work of genuine style and it looks absurd: Le Cercle Rouge, The Conformist, Safe and even The Fifth Element are a world away from Ford’s heavy brushstrokes. Style is something that cannot be bought, and A Single Man shows this in spades: harmony and obliterating unity are very different things.

All of which should make A Single Man collapse in on itself, crumbling under a weight of sentiment and starched collars, but it doesn’t. In fact, the human elements of the film seem all the more human for having to struggle against this high fashion inoculation. The vacuum created by the film’s self-image, it’s button-down, Patek Philippe authoritarian muted-ness, works like the socio-historical conventions of the time: it becomes a repressive force under which the “life” of the film must continue in secret, like an underground stream murmuring beneath a faceless mass of rock. The effacement of style paradoxically becomes the most effective means of conveying the stultifying ‘fear’ of the other, far more so than one of George’s lectures or inane jabbering about Cuba.

Through this lens the slightly creaky phantom of Jim becomes just that: a phantom. Not a passionate and moving remembrance of a world to which George wishes to return but something closer to what so much of memory is: a pale, insipid imitation, or flamboyant parody, just another parlor trick in the machinations of loss. George struggles with a complex and difficult longing, an incomplete mourning, one that the surface world, indeed the very film of which he is a part, denies him at every turn. The film’s aestheticised construction of homosexual experience is of no comfort, it becomes just one more lead weight threatening to recuperate and mollify his love. In one of the most emotive scenes in the film, Charley, driven by her own semi-unrequited love for George, intimates that his relationship with Jim was a ‘stand-in for the real thing’ (implied as being a conventional heterosexual relationship with her). George rightly is furious and lambasts her residual homophobia. However, the argument expresses a different, more disturbing truth: that the remnant of love which is such an important inescapable part of George, which lies at the very core of him, even distorting the way he is able to see the world, is itself a stand-in for the real thing. This makes his desire for death all the more understandable. It is not grief in and of itself that has made life unlivable, but this grief that is forced into hiding, both by the conventions of 1960s America and those of the film’s construction of memory, reducing Jim’s reflection to a series of overly dressed vaudeville vignettes.

In A Single Man then, what style there is comes neither from a correlative harmony nor a studied discord consonant with the fractured identities of modernity. Rather, it is expunged like water from a geyser in direct opposition to the technical and narrative composition of the film. Here, the parade of close-ups on folded shirts, document cases, and pristine pairs of Oxfords are no longer simply effluvia of luxury consumerism posing as stylistic motifs, but material manifestations of the world’s homophobia, its warmongering and racism. Again, rather than blundering icebergs of pathos and fantasies of drowning that would not look out of place with the Guinness logo in the corner, the flashbacks and dreams become a kind of dialectical opposite to the watery photographs and rusted weapons in Tarkovsky. Instead of fragments in the coursing river of history whose meaning can be reconstructed, we have the facile spectres of personal memory, meaningless and clownish perpetuations of drives and moments. These are not material shards from which a narrative of past love can be exhumed, but flimsy pieces strong-armed down the narrow pathways society has left open to them.

George eventually finds a modicum of meaning and enjoyment in the present only to have them snatched back. The closing scene of the film is both intense and affecting, but not because of the ham-fisted one-two punch at the narrative surface: sadness at George’s death and relief at his being reunited with Jim in the afterlife. Rather, from the moment of Jim’s accident and the phone call denying him the chance to go to the funeral, George has been in a world where grief, particularly that of a gay man for his lover, is suffocated by every object, every interaction. This grief is forced to lie in the heart until it can hold out no longer. In death, George has indeed gone to the same place as Jim, but not to a happy afterlife, nor to a silent void, but into the world of memory. There he will exist as a phantom, haunting the space distorted by the minds of those who are left behind. As the credits roll, we realise the true horror of repressive fear and its truncation of grief: it pre-narrates even our most cherished memories and losses into mawkish vulgarity, removing the specificity of death and paralysing us with its heavy-handed intentions.

A wise man once said ‘Art is the death of intention’; in the case of A Single Man never a truer word was spoken.

[1] This use of advertising language is not merely a churlish or facetious affectation, A Single Man, employs the logic and conventions of the ad world, it continually asks to be understood on these terms.

[2] Nelson, Thomas Allen. “FILM STYLES AND FILM MEANINGS.” Film Criticism 3, no. 3 (1979): 2–17. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44018635.