No image in the movies is as powerful, as gripping, or as revealing as a character’s eyes. Director Tom Ford clearly understands this. I had countless images of eyes dancing in my head after watching his masterful first movie A Single Man.
Try an experiment. Go through a stack of fashion magazines, cut out photos of models, and sort them into three groups – eyes not visible, eyes visible but looking away, and eyes looking directly at you. Place one from each group in front of you. Which engages you the most directly? Try it again and again with other sets of three.
You’ll find the ones staring at you the most provocative. Sometimes I stare into a model’s eyes for minutes at a time. When I can’t see her eyes, I look away as well. Have you ever stared into the eyes of a cat? It’ll stare right back – until you close yours. Then the spell is broken.
A Single Man tells the story of George, a college English professor. Eight months ago, he lost the love of his life to a car accident, a loss that haunts and torments him. Everywhere, he sees reminders of his loss. Today, he feels he can no longer live as a single man.
George is played brilliantly and subtly by Colin Firth (a richly deserved Oscar nominee) and his best friend and confidant, Charley, is played by Julianne Moore. She is also superb, as always. But A Single Man is a director’s movie more so than one belonging to its cast.
Tom Ford (sadly, no relation I’m afraid) is one of the world’s leading fashion designers. And his eye for style is everywhere. The first thing I said to my wife during the credits was: “Wow. I loved every single frame.” And those frames truly left me breathless.
Every scene has close-ups of eyes, many close-ups, and many eyes – even Janet Leigh’s on a huge poster for Hitchcock’s Psycho. But it’s not all eyes. Close-ups of lips and cigarettes and a handgun are everywhere as well. George rolls a tiny pencil sharpener – a silly little gift – in his fingers. He’s obsessed with little things. He might have directed this movie himself.
George means to end his life, thus the handgun. Things don’t quite work out as planned though. This is both an unpredictable and a darkly funny movie. One “laugh out loud” scene has him trying to get comfortable while aiming the gun barrel into his mouth, even giving his sleeping bag a try. And one of the funniest lines is: “Are you going camping?”
Set in 1962, A Single Man is also a very “movie” sort of movie. Visually, it playfully riffs on La Dolce Vita (1960) with George as Marcello Mastroianni and, with its emphasis on small gestures; it resembles Pickpocket (1959).
Structurally, it eagerly evokes Death in Venice with its interleaving of a man’s final day with flashbacks to happier times. (The novel A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood was actually dubbed Death in Venice, CA.) Don’t worry though. Non-movie geeks will find the images and ideas intoxicating as well, even if they don’t recognize the sources.
One of my favorite movies is Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. It includes a sequence of people accidentally looking at the camera. Marker, the narrator, asks, “Have you ever heard of anything stupider than to say to people, as they teach in film schools, not to look at the camera?”
After watching A Single Man, I can’t think of anything either.