A Single Man: all style, no substance?

With its ruminations on death, modernity and sentiment, there is more to Tom Ford’s directorial debut than some critics suggest.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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Tom Ford’s directorial debut A Single Man, based on the 1964 Christopher Isherwood novel, is a thing of beauty. From a lingering shot of a perfectly mascaraed eyelash to a languorous close-up of full, plump lips dragging protractedly on a cigarette, Eros makes his presence felt everywhere.

It’s not just the human form itself that is so enchanting – and enchanted – here. Objects, too, whether a car dashboard or man’s suit, ooze sex appeal. Unfortunately, it is this aspiration to the sublime, this self-consciously artful approach, not to mention the too-mentionable fact that Ford is a fashion designer, that has led some critics to wonder if there’s too much surface in this movie. A Single Man looks wonderful, they say, but it glosses its content, it loses its depth. Even the excellent Colin Firth – slim to the point of ripped – looks just too damn good.

Which is strange, you’d think, given the depressed subject matter. Set in Los Angeles in 1962, A Single Man is a day in the life of aging English professor George Falconer (Colin Firth), who’s struggling to come to terms with the death of his partner Jim (Matthew Goode) in a car crash. It is ostensibly a portrait of a grieving man, one whose mourning for the man he loves and has now lost is stunted and repressed. After all, you can’t mourn for a love which, even in the early 1960s, still dare not speak its name. He wasn’t even invited to the funeral.

But while A Single Man is a sometimes moving study of living after the end of one’s reason for living, its scope is broader. The Western world, too, seems at its end. In the background, the Cuban missile crisis is playing itself out, a symbol, it seems, of a world poised on the edge of self-annihilation. But the sense of exhaustion, the sense of a world consuming itself, goes deeper. While there might well be a postwar boom, with cars and TVs and dental products available everywhere, there is little in the way of euphoria. Rather there is a sense that something is being lost, that the best which has been thought and said in the world, the Great Tradition, the liberal arts, is being lost to the unfeeling, virtueless world of commerce and consumerism.

Not for nothing is our single man here a professor of English, a voice of that disappearing world of high culture. Assessing his current students, Falconer notes that they ‘aspire to nothing more than a corporate job’ and raising families of ‘Coke-drinking, TV-watching children’.

If Falconer himself is struggling to see a reason for going on, for living after the end, A Single Man is also struggling to see much future for humanity as a whole. In the portentous words of Kenny, Falconer’s flirty, arch student, ‘Death is the future’.

But if the death drive in a decadent early 60s California seems to be in the ascendance in A Single Man – a fact rather unsubtly emphasised by the inclusion in Ford’s screenplay of the question of whether Falconer will shoot himself – it also explains why the film seems so concerned with surfaces, with enchanting the appearance of things. To death, to Thanatos, A Single Man counterposes life, Eros. He might be stranded in a dying, muffled world, but beauty is constantly arresting and taking possession of Falconer. While a colleague harangues him about nuclear war, Falconer’s attention is caught by two men playing tennis, their naked chests and stomachs glistening in the autumnal heat; while a secretary is informing him that someone has asked for his address, Falconer is drawn to her eyes, her mouth, her hair. A Single Man sublimates. It gives to the everyday an allure, a beauty which, just occasionally, will take Falconer away from his dream of death.

But only occasionally. Because it can’t stop time. Throughout A Single Man the loudly ticking clock is a symbol of the harsh, unsentimental, all-too-rationalising modern world. It is also the herald of the inevitable. Little wonder that in A Single Man, that which is not a product of human thought and society, that which is not rational – namely, feeling and sentiment – is idealised. ‘Sometimes I have moments of absolute clarity’, remarks Falconer. ‘I can feel, rather than think; the world feels so fresh. It’s as though it just came into existence.’ The desire to stop time, to have the ‘now’ forever is as suicidally death-laden as the world that is exhausting culture, killing feeling. But in A Single Man this decadent posture becomes an ideology. It urges a plunge – literally so, given the underwater body imagery – into a world of pure sensation, of pure, thoughtless physicality. In other words, an immersion in surfaces.

A Single Man bears an uncanny resemblance to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. But Mann’s novella was an ironic portrait of art in the era of its impossibility. Things were too easily disenchanted; there was no elevated meaning to be embodied in art, religious or otherwise. Instead, beauty was too easily reducible to sexuality, the sublime to sublimated homosexuality. A Single Man, however, refuses to break the spell; it refuses to yield to the temptation to reveal the sex-and-sweat root of its aesthetic – for all the homosexual longing, there is no sex in this vision.

Instead, the vision, despite its subject matter, is almost uplifting, almost affirmative – there is life after the end, it seems to say. ‘I had a hunch you were a romantic’, Kenny tells Falconer. And so he must remain in this beautifully superficial film.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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