Friday, February 28, 2014

Tom Ford Philosophizes in and on Film: Carpe Diem—with Style!

Review of 

A Single Man

a  2009 film directed by Tom Ford

Tom Ford: fashion designer, perfume house creative director, provocateur ... film director? Yes, indeed, his début film effort, A Single Man, starring Colin Firth and also featuring Julianne Moore, has established that the creative director of Tom Ford Beauty is also an accomplished film director—and a screen writer to boot!

I must confess that I came to this film with rather low expectations. I was very pleasantly surprised at how good the work ended up being. Critics have grumbled that A Single Man is "boring". They lament specifically the lack of plot and the hyper-aestheticism, but those are precisely the central themes of this film. The naysayers somehow missed in their visceral disdain that A Single Man, based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, is on its face and by intention much more about style than substance.

The message of A Single Man is a simple one, and for that reason some may find it banal: Carpe Diem. Live each day to the fullest, as though it might be the last. Tom Ford's embellishment of this cliché—if indeed it is one—is to focus on all of the aesthetic minutiae of which every life is filled, provided only that one has eyes to see. And, of course, a nose to sniff.

Perfume appears in only two short segments of the film. Near the opening, what looks to be a bottle of none other than Tom Ford perfume sits on the protagonist's vanity. The bottle is turned to the side, so we are left to guess which member of the Private Collection George Falconer, the troubled English professor played by Colin Firth, might be wearing. One thing is clear: he does not have the entire collection but a single signature scent, along with two bottles of what look to be classic cologne or after shave. One of the “goofs” of this film listed at the IMDB database is that the bottle of spirits consumed by the protagonist was created in 1999, but the action takes place in 1962. No one seems to have noticed that Tom Ford Perfume did not exist at that time, either. In fact, Tom Ford himself was born in 1961!

The second scene in which perfume is briefly referenced is when the professor is speaking with a departmental secretary, whose beauty he is praising in a rather inappropriate way—and not only because he is gay. George is enraptured by the woman, whose physical beauty is enhanced by her scent, which he recognizes and identifies outloud: Arpège.

This scene effectively conveys an idea sometimes lost sight of: that sex and aesthetics are two completely different things. George, being a gay man, has no physical attraction to the woman whose beauty he admires. He finds her to be an exquisite sight to behold, something to gaze upon in awe, an object of reverence, not desire.

Some would say that women should be regarded as neither sex objects nor art objects or repositories of aesthetic value. But that sort of view supposes that human beings have essences. I favor a more existential approach: that people are what they choose to become. If a woman decides to focus on aesthetics or to render herself physically attractive—whether as a work of art or as an object of desire—that can be a perfectly valid choice, it seems to me, provided only that it is a genuine choice. Different people have different strengths and weaknesses. Work with what you've got.

The problem with beautiful women is not that they are beautiful, but that for most of the history of humanity, women have been excluded at the outset from roles beyond those of sexual partner, mother, and aesthetic object. More recently, as women have been afforded the opportunity to do other things as well, those three roles have become (and remain) choices for some.

My impression is that "beautiful" men have to deal with many of the same prejudices as do beautiful women. Stated starkly: many people have a hard time believing that a person can be both comely and intelligent. It's fine to be one or the other, but handsome, intelligent, and talented all at once? That would be way too many good genes concentrated in a single set of chromosomes!

Charlotte or "Charlie", the woman played by Julianne Moore in the film, has spent her life in the role of the beautiful young woman. She was married for nine years and raised a child. Her husband eventually left her—the implication being that he moved on to someone younger and more beautiful than she. Charlotte aged over the course of the decade of their relationship to become someone other than the woman she appeared earlier to be.

Charlie is the classic example of the woman who dedicated everything to her husband and focused primarily upon her beauty and his needs. She has no career, and now that her husband has abandoned her, she finds herself without moorings, a wealthy middle-aged woman who drinks heavily and wonders what she should do now that she is no longer a nubile young thing, and her child has also left the nest. (It is a bit unclear in the film, but the child may have been from a previous marriage.) Charlie never developed her talents nor pursued a career because she was too busy being the beautiful wife of her husband and the mother of a child.

The film is set in Los Angeles in 1962. At that time, women had many fewer options and opportunities than they do today. It is becoming more and more rare to find women like Charlotte in that sort of predicament, although it certainly does happen and is far more common in other parts of the world. But none of this is really what A Single Man is about. This becomes abundantly clear in a scene where George and Charlotte lie juxtaposed on the floor, wallowing in their respective state of despair. George is a college English professor. Having this credential, a successful career outside of the home, has done nothing to save him from his fate.

Charlotte may never have experienced true love, but George did, and he lost the love of his life after a relationship of sixteen years. The film focuses upon the existential despair of George, not Charlotte, though they are friends in part because they share the very same plight. Both have been left bereft: Charlotte because her husband abandoned her, and George because his long-term partner, Jim, has died in an automobile accident. The very identities of these grieving survivors have become bound up with people who are no longer a physical part of their lives but continue to dominate them psychologically from afar.

One appealing aspect of A Single Man is that it is intentionally and repeatedly ambiguous about a wide range of provocative questions regarding homo- and heterosexuality. Tom Ford leaves enough unanswered questions to allow the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions about the meaning of the bare facts of the story. To some, the fact that George and Jim were truly in love, and Charlotte never was, may be interpreted to mean that the love between two males is somehow higher or more exalted or more authentic than the business-like relationships which so many heterosexual marriages become as couples balance the demands of child-rearing and household maintenance.

In some ways Charlotte exemplifies the stereotypical “fag hag,” who ardently wishes, against all physical reality, that her gay male friend might finally see the heterosexual light. (They did have a physical relationship in the past but it did not work out—because George was really gay.) Yet the message in the film is not unequivocally that women are somehow inferior or incapable of true love. Heterophobes may read the text in that way, but a more catholic interpretation would be that love is very rare, between any two people, whether two men, a man and a woman, or two women.

Tom Ford manages to depict the relationship between George and Jim as one of true love, but also as natural as can be. While that sort of depiction may no longer seem revolutionary, given the recent social advances on this front, there was a time when homosexual love was regarded by a swath of the populace as pathological, something to be hidden and corrected or cured.

Homosexual love is presented as normal in this film, while the so-called normal “all American” family is depicted as somewhat unbalanced. George's next door neighbors, a typical suburban family of the early sixties, are cast in a rather negative light. In one brief segment, the young daughter, a blond child with a Rhoda Penmark-like demeanor (see The Bad Seed), catches a butterfly and destroys it between her hands by rubbing them together, crushing the delicate creature's wings to dust. (Animal rights lovers rest assured: the Humane Society monitored the production of this film and has certified that no cruelty was done!)

The juxtaposition of this somewhat boorish and coldly brutal family with the gentle homosexual couple next door seems to be a way of objecting to the erroneous attribution to homosexuals throughout history of psychological and sexual perversion. Again, a heterophobe might read too much into such examples, but a more liberal reading would perhaps acknowledge that cruelty and pathology transcend all demographic and gender-orientation lines.

The film offers a “sexual-preference-less” conception of love (analogous to “color blind”), though the only two characters who achieve true love happen to be two males. The message is not that every liaison between any two men is automatically better than any relationship between a man and woman. This becomes clear as George is confronted with two prospective “replacements” for his long lost love, but neither can fill the void in his soul. Jim was not just a sex object for George, as becomes obvious when he rejects the repeated advances of two different and very attractive potential suitors.

A Single Man plays out over the course of a single day. George has decided to end his own life, and he moves through the morning, the afternoon, and the evening with this idée fixe in mind. He goes to the bank and removes his insurance policy and other papers from a safe deposit box, returning to his home and laying everything out with the suit in which he wishes to be dressed while lying inert in his coffin. He attaches a note to the necktie to make sure that his last sartorial wishes will be respected: tie in a Windsor knot

He leaves a stack of money in a loaf of bread for his housekeeper, and cleans out his office at the university in preparation for his final departure from this world. Once all of the arrangements have been settled in his mind, George attempts repeatedly to shoot himself with a pistol in various parts of his home. 

He is unable to settle on the appropriate arrangement, where he should be when a bullet from the gun fires through his mouth into his head. 
After multiple failed efforts: sitting on the bed, lying on the bed, standing in the bathtub, and even buried within a sleeping bag, George gives up in exasperation, distracted by the phone ringing, which he knows to be his friend Charlotte, who has been awaiting his visit, bottle of Tanqueray gin in tow.

Eventually, after spending some time with a student who has been pursuing him relentlessly, George finally renounces his plan to take his own life. 

It is not quite clear in the film whether the two men slept together or not—the sequence of floating in water could be a reflection of either a physical experience or a dreambut something about the time spent with this sensitive young man changes George's view. 

He replaces the gun back in the desk drawer and turns the key to lock it in, ending what seemed to have been his inexorable quest to commit suicide. George then makes his way back to his bed, where immediately after experiencing a neo-Leibnizian "best of all possible worlds" epiphany, he proceeds to suffer a fatal heart attack.

This dénouement, like the rest of the film, can be read in a variety of ways. One is that what George and Jim had was sacred and should not be desecrated through George's involvement with another, younger man. Another way of understanding the film is as a profound expression of romanticism: that George and Jim's life together was complete, and once Jim had departed, it was George's turn to follow, not by his own hand, but by a force beyond his control. He died not because he was too weak to face the world without Jim, but because it was time for him to go.

Every single shot of this film is perfectly composed, not because Tom Ford was attempting to be artsy-fartsy, but because he really is. The extreme attention to detail, to making sure that every single thing is in its place and properly arranged with balance and symmetry, is an expression of an aesthetic vision of life. The highly stylized quality of this film reflects a desire not only to control the environment in which one spends one's time, but also to be able to gaze upon all within one's view in awe of the beauty to be found in even the smallest of things.


  1. wow I really didn't know he made a film! I would definitely look up

    1. Colin Firth's performance is excellent--he was nominated for many awards and received some of them. See below, though, for a naysayer!

  2. Sorry, Sherapop, you can delete my comment if you wish, but I think that this film is sooooo melodramatic and not worth seeing.

    1. No worries, Pipette! You are certainly entitled to your opinion! ;-)

  3. I would have liked to have seen a film that featured Charlotte getting equal time. As it stands, there seem to be a few different threads, none of which are given sufficient attention. The idea seems to have been "slice of life," meaning we are seeing he main character at a particular point in his life, and while I wouldn't tell people to avoid it, I think it could have been much stronger if had been approached from a different angle, so to speak.

    1. Thanks so much for your input, bigsly!

      Yes, the film is a bit desultory, but I believe that the intention was as you put it, to offer a "slice of life". We retrospectively tell stories about what happens in our lives, but rarely do we detail the details. Instead, we look for the big "event-worthy" happenings and forget all the rest. Your suggestions are good, but would make a different sort of film.

      Many people disliked A Single Man, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality, no doubt in part because I had such low expectations. This film definitely improved my view of Tom Ford. You may recall that the last post on him at the salon de parfum was about the use of pornography in marketing his mainstream perfumes. A Single Man demonstrates that he is much more complex--even philosophical! Or else he's an even better marketer than any of us ever thought... having now won even sherapop, the critic's critic, over to his side. ;-)

  4. In some ways, it reminded me of that old Burt Lancaster film, "The Swimmer," which added a Twilight Zone kind of element but featured a "middle aged" man forced to confront his life (in that case divorce was the catalyst). He too meets several different people, has probing conversations with them, and at the end finds himself alone and in despair. Have you seen that one?

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, bigsly! No, I have not seen that film, but I'll put it in my queue. I've never been much of a plot monger, so I might well enjoy it too! Here's a litmus test for tastes in film:

      Have you seen L'année dernière à Marienbad? If so, did you like it?

      What about Le Chagrin et la Pitié?

      The Man with a Movie Camera?

      Sans Soleil?

      I recommend all of them! ;-) (What can I say?)


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