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Film Review

A Single Man

Tom Ford, best known for his design work (and sensual ads) for Gucci and Yves St Laurent, has written and directed a powerful, very beautiful film about George Falconer, a gay professor of English literature in Southern California, whose long time partner has just been killed in an automobile accident. The story is taken from Christopher Isherwood's novel of the same name, published in 1964, and considered an important work in gay liberation. It is a story of intense unresolved grief, as Falconer, brilliantly played by Colin Firth, begins what may be the last day of his life. His story is set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when it was frighteningly possible that we could have nuclear war. And when being gay often came with a very big price.

The film opens with two dream sequences, the first in which someone is submerged in water, floating, being carried slowly upward. The second shows Falconer, in his suit, standing on a lonely road looking at a car that has crashed, and is now upside down in a field. Next to the car is a handsome young man on his back, dead, with blood on his face. Next to him is his dog, also dead. Falconer slowly walks over to the man, kneels, then sadly kisses him. The contrast between the horror, sadness, and beauty of the crash scene is characteristic of Ford's cinematographic triumph. Then Falconer awakes, and begins his day. At this point he begins to narrate. Falconer is an enormously disciplined person, armoring his grief stricken inner self with exterior control. He dresses methodically, taking clothes from drawers that are perfectly arranged, walks into an immaculate kitchen, then through the house. A house, whose exterior is no set, surely architect designed. And gets into his Mercedes coupe, and drives slowly away, as he passes the neighbor's wife, who gives him a lovely wave and smile. Again, every scene is beautiful, and you want to stop the camera to really look at everything closely. All of this is accompanied by wonderful, low key music, that at times was very reminiscent of John Adams' compositions for The Hours.

Falconer's closest friend, Charlotte, played by Julianne Moore, lives next door. Charley, as he calls her, and he were once lovers, briefly, long ago in London, but each went their separate ways. Charley married, her husband left her after 9 years, and she now stays at home and drinks. She has invited Falconer over for dinner that night, and is very excited about the prospect. The camera focuses on her eyes, as she carefully trims, blackens, and brushes. It is gorgeous camera work. Falconer teaches his class, discussing Huxley, during which he gives a wonderful talk about the fear of the other. One student in particular pays rapt attention, and follows him out of the class to talk. The student asks him questions, but Falconer, always in control, parries most of the questions. But the student does seem to intuit that Falconer is hurting inside. He is correct, and we see Falconer begin to do things that suggest he is leaving. He empties his safe deposit box, buys a box of cartridges for his old pistol, and goes home to arrange things on his desk, such as documents, labeled keys, and notes. In a very touching scene, he leaves a note, with considerable cash, for his cleaning lady under the wrapping of a loaf of bread in the icebox. And then begins to arrange the pillows on his bed, while holding his revolver and practicing shooting positions. Although the reader who has made it this far may think I've revealed too much, there is far more unrevealed, including things utterly unexpected.

It's astonishing that a film this accomplished and moving could be a director's first film. The performances are outstanding, and surely both Firth and Moore will get Academy nominations. But the cinematography is beyond words, simply gorgeous, every moment. I cannot recall a scene that wasn't perfect and beautiful, with Ford's contrast throughout the entire film between great sadness and great beauty. A Single Man is slow paced, but a virtue here. It is a profound meditation on the nature of aloneness, grief, and art. I loved this film, and it will easily make one of my ten best this year. Just opened at both the Embarcadero and the Kabuki, which is unusual in itself.

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