A Single Man (2009)

A Single Man

Colin Firth mesmerises as a grieving gay college professor, but can dressing Isherwood’s novel up in a sharp new suit say anything about 21st century queerdom?

A Single Man

The Unbearable Lightness of Loafers by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Watching A Single Man just days after the suicide of gay fashion guru Alexander McQueen, Tom Ford’s debut exerts a peculiar chill; watching the suicide of a bereaved gay man through the lens of a fashionista. It’s a very stylish adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s groundbreakingly gay novel set in a Sixties haven of Gainsbourg and mescaline, but as George, Charly, Jim and Kenny parade in their gorgeous suits, dollyrocker dresses and vintage eyewear, is A Single Man just too cool for Stonewall?

Blazing a trail for gay liberation in the Sixties, the novel A Single Man was largely based on Isherwood’s own life. Like George, Isherwood lived in Santa Monica, taught at Los Angeles State College and his lover, Don Bachardy, was 30 years his junior. It’s perhaps here that Tom Ford found his inspiration to adapt this forgotten novel, dedicating the film to his partner, Richard Buckley, 13 years his senior. But while the film still remains very Isherwood – Julianne Moore’s Charly is a fantastic facsimile of Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles – Ford strips out Isherwood’s Huxley-loving, Sixties psychedelic spirituality. It’s gloss pics, not joss sticks, darling.

Elegantly apparelled in Tom Ford Menswear, gracefully gliding through architectural apartments, these could be models on a retro photoshoot. Well, with the casting of actor-turned-Hackett-model Matthew Goode and model-turned-actor Jon Kortajarena, they are. And at six foot two, who else but Firth has the stature to carry off those sophisticated slacks? Who does smoke-eyes and beehives better than Julianne Moore?  But still, the performances are breathtaking. Tom Ford couldn’t have picked better looking heavyweights. Colin Firth is painfully real and touching; the caravan of emotions journeying across his face upon hearing the dread news would be mesmerising if it weren’t for the nervous intercutting.

Ford is not much of a one for the slow-burner, chivvying us along with finger-pistol slow-mo, natty flashbacks and oneiric dream sequences. From hallucinatory visions of Firth’s elegantly naked body tortuously languishing underwater to warm, intimate memories of George’s cosy relationship with Jim, style is Ford’s idol. Why flashback in monochrome if not to show off the texture of the rocky cliff face, for beauty’s sake? At best, it’s offputting – do we really need the style-rupturing tableau of a colleague in a missile bunker with family and cow? At worst, Ford’s scopophilia is criminal. Oh, what emotion there could have been if we’d heard more than a rain-filled silence as an inconsolable, grief-stricken George runs howling into Charly’s arms. And yet the stylistic device of colour desaturation as George oscillates between doleful grief and brighter moments of love and joy is a masterstroke. Like George’s sartorial obsession, Ford’s fascination with visual-effects bling is effective, but obtrusively stylised. And as we’re watching the writhing bodies of two muscular male tennis players, we’re not quite sure if this gaze is gay, or just fashion.

Vision is key to A Single Man; seeing, seen, unseen. As George hints in a lecture, homosexuals are one of the invisible minorities, like McCarthy’s communists, blending in under the radar. Jim and George live in a stunning glass house in Californian suburbia, invisible in plain sight – just a little bit light on their loafers. But this welcome obscurity has its drawbacks, painfully drawn to the surface when George is forbidden from going to his lover’s funeral. He hides his grief from the world, unable to avow the love that still doesn’t dare speak its name. Invisible but sharp-eyed, it is careful seeing that brings the inhabitants of this gay demimonde together; George, Kenny and Carlos all see differently. But as they flutter flirtatiously around each other, they have to let themselves be seen for who they really are in order to come out of the shadows.

Whether we see A Single Man as homopositive is a queer conundrum. Gay-themed and with an openly gay director, but a straight adaptation of Sixties mores, the film is too chaste to challenge a 21st century audience. Despite a kaleidoscope of cinematic borrowings from gay directors –  Jon Kortarajena’s James-Dean-a-like rentboy à la Gus Van Sant or a supersized Psycho poster reminiscent of Almodovar’s Huma Rojo in All About My Mother – Tom Ford’s sensibility is still depressingly straight-acting. Deciding not to commit suicide only to then die of a heart attack, and denied the promise of eternal reunion with Jim as his lover fades to black, George is doomed to die a single man, punished by the heteroarchy. Twice.

A glossy collage of Sixties’ concerns, spotlighting women’s lib, gay rights and the Cuban Missile Crisis with pop-promo pyrotechnics, A Single Man is still greater than the sum of its swatches. There are moments of real human honesty and cinematic poetry – George’s shy come-hither eyes in a gauche flirtation with sailor Jim, gin-twisting with Charly, or life-affirming skinnydipping with danger-zone Kenny. But like George, as we awaken from this dubious vision, drowning in its beautiful images, we gasp for breath – a thought-free moment of clarity when the heart rules the head – life is a cabaret, old chum, come hear the music play.

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