The guy can’t help it -- in fact, he’d rather flaunt it. Tom Ford is a romantic. There, I’ve said it. The evidence is all over the loving, lingered-on, sleek surfaces of A Single Man, Ford’s directorial debut. Don’t mistake this for the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man -- between these two and the multitude of films with Nine in their title, one idly wonders whether there’s such a thing as far too many people being on the same page -- though A Single Man is clearly one of its kind. I can’t recall another feature by a fashion designer of Ford’s caliber and renown -- Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein purchased Halston not so long ago, but even he hasn’t dared to actual pick up a needle and whip up a collection, which makes the former Gucci innovator’s achievement glow even greater.
The romantic bit is the surprise because everyone who drooled over the garb issued during Ford’s reign at Gucci and his briefer tenure overseeing Yves Saint-Laurent knew the man can definitely do sexy and hot. Restraint and romance seems the purview of Alice Temperley or Jane Campion, yet an exquisite, unrequited longing is exactly what Ford brings to this take on a Christopher Isherwood novel.
The year is 1962, and gay British college professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) is trying to make it through another day, horribly isolated in the sepia-tone SoCal sunshine. The longtime love of his life, Jim, has died suddenly in a car crash. George receives the news on the sly, courtesy of a family friend (voiced by an uncredited Jon Hamm of Mad Men), and he hasn’t been invited to the funeral. With nowhere to grieve and no one to confide in apart from his best friend Charley (Julianne Moore), George methodically goes about his ordinary work day with a crucial difference: He fully intends to kill himself at its close. The only thing that appears to be stopping him is Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), a mysterious, beautiful student in one of his classes. The choice is life -- and possible love -- over despair.
Firth’s potent performance, which won the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival, does most of the heavy lifting in A Single Man, bringing nuance to the endless scenes of sublime objets, period architecture, toxically glorious L.A. sunsets and making us care about the fate of such a closed, closeted protagonist. The rush of emotions -- from aloofness to sudden anguish to quickly dampened-down hurt -- that flickers across George’s face when he’s told of Jim’s fatal accident, sets the bar high. As does Moore, whose boyishly named Charley has been pining for George despite the fact that he was taken: Moore sears through her scenes with fire-fly vividness -- a gorgeous train wreck of a divorcee with the languid glamour of a Burt Bacharach love song and the camp messiness of a long-lost Valley of the Dolls moppet.
Yet this is Firth’s film to make or unmake, and he rises to the occasion like he was born to play this tragically buttoned-up, albeit suavely stylish gay man, who finds comfort and later sadness in his status as an invisible minority. He’s a kind of Left Coast counterpart to Salvatore of Mad Men. And thanks to the production designers of that series, the period look of A Single Man is exactly on point, as can be expected from a film that Ford had a hand in. The designer had a major hand, financing the entire endeavor after the recent credit collapse put the kibosh on his funding, and there’s style to spare in A Single Man, which in many ways it seems art-directed within an inch of its existence: one can’t help stare, sometimes to the story’s detriment, at the silky midcentury modernist surfaces of George’s LA home, his Michael Cain-like boxy black eyeglass frames, his Heath ceramics.
It’s clear that Ford’s in the mood for love -- and under the influence of Wong Kar-Wai, whose preference for films as tone poems -- complete with to-die-for visuals, emotion-cued cinematography and eloquent use of music -- is evident here, as is the inspiration of fashion photographers like Herb Ritts and filmmakers such as Todd Haynes. Unlike that other “Man”-ly take on the early ‘60s, Mad Men, the sumptuous images don’t always serve the story -- and Ford shows his inexperience as a filmmaker and storyteller by letting a metaphorical image or flashback linger a beat or two too long. In that sense A Single Man is obviously a first film -- but thanks to its players and its maker’s intelligence, taste, and passion, it’s also blissfully singular.
A Single Man screens at Sundance Kabuki Cinema, 1881 Post, SF, and Embarcadero Center Cinema, 1 Embarcadero Center, SF.