Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009)
So, I have another confession to make. Last weekend I embarked upon my much-anticipated first viewing of A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009). I'd been looking forward to the film for some time - the trailer was stunning, the photography was so beautiful that even the still frames I'd looked at had captured my heart, and Colin Firth had turned in an OSCAR nominated performance. What could go wrong? Well, as it turns out, a lot...
When the end credits rolled I was in two minds. I couldn't remember the last time a film had divided me so completely. Upon its release many critics had taken against the film for its visual style; the photography by Eduard Grau and direction by Tom Ford. They claimed that the film was more like a perfume advert than a film and indeed this was where Ford's experience lay. I find that view to be overly cynical. It's certainly obvious where Ford has learnt his craft - there are entire scenes that I expected to end with 'Dior' popping up onscreen, along with a price tag. But personal style plays a large part in the the film and clothes are an integral part - especially for George (Firth) who wears his as an armour from the outside world on the last day of his life. My problems did, however, lie in aesthetics. The thing is, A Single Man is two films. One is a grey and subtle meditation on loss and bereavement, hinged on the amazing Colin Firth. That film is great. The other film is an aesthetic meditation on grief - using photography to inform shifts in mood, tone and emotion. The direction and editing informs us of space and time; a directly visual representation of George and the people around him. That film is great. Meshed together however, humanity and construction prove to be an ill-fated mix. As soon as I was drawn in by Firth's marvelous turn the self-consciously 'arty' presentation reminded me that it was all a film and coldly withdrew me from emotional engagement. The problem lies in what I call internal and external filmmaking.
The internal is what we see through the camera lens. It's everything that's real and natural - the location, diegetic sound and performances. The external is what's behind the camera - the photography, editing and score. This takes what is natural and manipulates it into something else - it warps the image (perhaps beautifully) to inform an audience of something. Direction lies somewhere between the internal and external. A filmmaker like Michael Haneke allows his camera to absorb the naturalness. In Caché (2005) he uses static shots with natural sound - no scoring or overly-stylized photography - to form a space where the audience can think for themselves. There is some neat editing - the rewinding of an image to reveal what we are watching is a pre-recorded video tape. But this is only to further the internal narrative. This is different to a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese, who in films like Goodfellas (1990) uses frenetic camerawork and inventive shots to create a pace - of course it's marvelously edited but it's Scorsese who's manipulating the image as much as anyone else.
There is a conflict of interests in A Single Man with the internal and external film. The internal is played like a sombre, painful soliloquy. The external is played like a visual poem - an avant-garde expression of loss, if you will. This creates a problem with how I, the viewer, accesses the film. In its attempt to mesh emotion and aestheticism the film falls flat halfway inbetween authenticity and artifice. Which one it is I honestly don't know. But either way A Single Man feels more like an art installation than a film. And that has to be a problem. Doesn't it?