An English professor, one year after the sudden death of his boyfriend, is unable to cope with his typical days in 1960s Los Angeles.
George (Colin Firth) is a prim man, a university professor, in California in 1962, so hobbled by grief that there is nothing else. Life, all that is ordinary, is rife with pain. Everything he sees, everything he touches, no matter how mundane, is shackled to memories of his dead lover, Jim (Mathew Goode); memories that come at George, in flashbacks, with force and pain of a shiv. It is better to have loved and lost, Tennyson wrote, than to have never loved at all. This is not true. Loss can be so profound that it peels you hollow from the inside. Life for George has become far from meaningless; meaningless would be good, meaningless would mean numb. George is far from numb.
For a movie cemented in grief and death—because that’s basically it; A Day In The Life Of Suicidal Depression—A Single Man is viscerally full of life. Not joie de vivre, exactly, but certainly carnality. Carnality and lust. It’s a horny movie: its opening image is of lithe, wet nakedness, and everyone is in full rut. Colin Firth is brilliant. No morose, put-upon, persecuted homo here, apologetic and guilty for just existing, instead he is anachronistically comfortable about his sexually—and indignant when others aren’t—and energetically snide and snappish in his grief. And still somewhat of an old rooster. He inexplicably stops people in their tracks who then need to have sex with him. I mean, well, he is Colin Firth, but he’s playing a buttoned up, old-world academic in the 60s: as Establishment as you can get. It’s hard to suspend one’s disbelief that candy-doll Nicholas Hoult (as Kenny, his student, who offers him a doobie and penetrating liquid stares) would be agog. Or, indeed, every male and female he comes in contact with. People are seemingly struck senseless. Eyes glaze over and jaws drop. He’s like a dime-bag to a hophead. There’s even a meeting like from a gay porn fantasy when George encounters a Spanish James Dean outside liquor store waiting for pick-up—Tom Ford meets Tom of Finland.
But as 1975 as George might be he is still in 1962. The idea of same-sex marriage would have be laughable even to gays, who weren’t even ‘gays’ yet but still just a clinical mental disorder. Grief is isolating at the best of times, but George is trapped in a world that won’t even allow him to grieve. Jim’s family shuts him out and forbids him from going to the funeral. One morning Jim left out the front door and it’s as if he was never there; sixteen years of George’s life vanished. His one confidant who offers some succour is his best friend, Charley (Julianne Moore, on loan from the Valley of the Dolls). Moore is delicious, a fag hag a fag would kill for, damaged, messy, impossibly glamorous, all ‘light my cigarette, dahling’ and ‘pick me up a bottle of Tanquery, dahling,’ someone you can get messy with and glut on self-pity. But even she can’t fathom George’s loss, fliply offering that Jim was a substitute for a real marriage even when their relationship far outlasted her own.
Tom Ford is a fashion designer. Now, I wouldn’t know a Gucci handbag from a skin tag, but, cripes, he can sure make a film. He uses unexpected jump cuts and shockingly funny—shocking only because they’re in a film suffocated by death—cutaways. This is bravura filmmaking. It doesn’t feel like his first time, or the work of a hobbyist (I mean, he does have a day job), but someone who is assured enough about film to create something artistically cohesive that fully utilizes the medium. He plays with the colour palette with a degree of sophistication that I’ve never quite seen before: he saturates and bleeds colour, from near-sepia to Sirkian Technicolor and back again, within the same shot, not even between scenes. His sound design is also exceptional, subtly mixing in heartbeats and clock ticks, and bringing in big, needy, attention-seeking violins. This is a director who knows his material intimately, and has a confident and cinematic eye.
Based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood—linking the blood from his dead lover’s lips in George’s dream to the ink from his spilled pen is a lovely and generous gesture to a writer—the problem with the film is that it’s hard to get involved. We don’t get the losing, which is dramatic, but start and finish in the loss, which isn’t so much. Flashbacks of Jim—some which feel a little trite, like snuggling on a couch and cooing ‘what could be better than tucked up with you?’—don’t really add anything. We pretty much get it that losing the one you loved most is sad. There are no arcs, nobody changes. George, just trying to ‘get through the goddamn day’ with aspirin and scotch, is not lovable. The problem is even in flashbacks he’ not particularly lovable, just the same flinty, uptight snoot.
With its excellent direction, performances, editing, cinematography, sound design, and dark sense of humour, this is a stunning film. I sort of miss it now that’s it’s gone, but just not enough.