Tom Ford’s A Single Man records a day in the life of George Falconer, a day punctuated with clothes. In the morning he dons his impeccably tailored suit and polishes his shoes. Sometime during the day he goes out to buy bullets for a gun. In the afternoon he lays out the clothes he wants to be buried in.
George is a university English professor in California who is grieving over the death of his lover of 16 years. He moves through the day hulled in a shawl of enervating, self-obliterating sorrow that Ford masterfully shoots in muted tones of grey and washed-out beige.
His grief is a near ubiquitous mediator of experience from whose grasp George only sporadically emerges. It is like the sea in which we see George writhing underwater at the beginning of the film. All is muffled and dimmed.
Like George himself. There is always a degree of reserve to him, always some distance and numbness about him. Even when we see him in the evening drinking and dancing with his divorcee friend Charley, we discern a stiffness of movement, a Lebensmüdigkeit that restrains him from fully and spontaneously immersing himself in the moment or giving himself to pleasure.
But he’s not dead yet. He’s a man whose center of existence and capacity for joy and love seem to have been excised, but with just enough left over to suggest the promise of regeneration (in the guise of Kenny, a sensitive student of George’s who has been half-flirting with him). Although his brokenness is clearly visible—enough so that Kenny comes by in the evening worried that his teacher is in trouble—George isn’t a miserable person. He’s a nice guy.
Ford plays with this tension between the here-and-now and the hereafter throughout the film, tugging it one direction or the other. The greyness gives way to vibrant color in the scenes in which George is drawn back into life by others. The screen fills with the Crayola aquamarine of the neighbor’s daughter’s dress, the peach and gold of Charley’s living room, the rich amber light of sunset that suffuses a parking lot where George meets a staggeringly beautiful hustler, whose thick salmon-colored lips we then see in close-up as a swirling wisp of cigarette rises from his mouth like a lustful unleashed genie.
Nowhere is this existential tug-of-war more visible than in the scene in which George gets ready to kill himself. He sits up on the bed, with his back propped against a couple of pillows. He eases the muzzle of the gun into his mouth but he soon starts fidgeting. He can’t get comfortable. He takes the pillows and fluffs them up and puts them back against the bed’s headboard. But he still can’t get comfortable so he gets up and fetches a sleeping bag which he lays on the bed and into which he squirms and zippers himself up, like a child curling under the covers to hide from the monster. It’s almost comical. Why would you care if you’re uncomfortable if you’re going to shoot yourself? But that’s just it. I can almost hear him thinking, “I don’t want my last moment on earth to be uncomfortable.” This is not the thought of a man bent on suicide. The next scene makes you believe that he still might be tugged fully and irrevocably back into life. In a voiceover at the end of the film, George says,
“A few times in my life I’ve had moments of absolute clarity, when for a few brief seconds the silence drowns out the noise and I can feel rather than think, and things seem so sharp and the world seems so fresh. I can never make these moments last. I cling to them, but like everything, they fade. I have lived my life on these moments. They pull me back to the present, and I realize that everything is exactly the way it was meant to be.”
Ford has been criticized for making a “preening, shallow” film that is “all art and no direction” (Zacharek in Salon), for giving us a “movie about love and loss which all but drowns in its own gorgeousness” (Bradshaw in the Guardian), a film that is “art-directed for a maximum sale” (Dargis in the New York Times). Critics even took affront to George’s perfectly pressed Brooks Brothers suit and to the fastidiousness in the instructions he leaves for how is to be dressed for the casket, saying it was unseemly for man in such pain to care about the way he’s dressed, dead or alive.
But there is no inherent contradiction between George’s sartorial flawlessness and the messy imperfection of loss; there is no innate incongruence between elegance and grief. Nor does the former necessarily demean the latter. On the contrary, it makes much emotional sense in the film.
George is a product of his time and his class. His crease-free suit and polished brogues are nothing more than good breeding, as are the notes for his funeral, the package of bonds and insurance policy, and the cufflinks and tie that he all lays out on his desk: an act of consideration to those who will have to clean up the mess he will leave behind. No one will need to make any decision at all, or rifle through the house to find his will and stocks. Like a thoughtful host, he’s arranged everything.
The meticulousness of dress reflects the imperturbability he musters when he receives the phone call in which he learns of Jim’s death and the family’s wish that he not appear at the funeral. It is 1962 and we know that he would no sooner make a scene over the phone, much less arrive at the graveside unwanted, than he would show up for class in dirty sneakers and torn chinos. Both dress and demeanor are no more than the mask he dons to get through another day. As George says,
“It takes time in the morning for me to become George, time to adjust to what is expected of George and how he is to behave. By the time I have dressed and put the final layer of polish on the now slightly stiff but quite perfect George I know fully what part I’m supposed to play.”
The admittedly virtuoso art direction thus plays an important role in the film (Incidentally, I wonder if it would have been so frequently commented on if the director had not emerged from the world of fashion). And the camera does linger on the details of clothes and décor, and the art direction often focuses on the arrangement of things. And there are studied long-shots of George turned away from the camera and framed by the glass walls of his designer house. But these scenes only serve to underscore the hollowness in George’s life. They are a strikingly effective way to convey the absence of George’s lover. They are the inverse of the scenes in which Jim appears with George in flashback: sitting together on a flat rock on a beach or kissing each other. The screen overflows with their shared presence. And I can’t think now of many other films in which the intimacy between two lovers is so convincingly, so lovingly and so matter-of-factly portrayed as in the scene where Jim and George are lying on a couch, head to feet, reading and talking, so clearly at ease and delighting in the sheer presence of the other and in simply being together. A Single Man is a beautiful movie, but not only because of its art direction.