Today’s topic: grief. In a world where technology is prevailing, online communities are winning, face-to-face interaction is fading, surprisingly we’re still able to mourn, and better yet talk about grief. It’s a hard process, a long one. Sometimes it takes a year or two, sometimes a whole lifetime. In film, grief has been used as a subject for deep character studies in movies like The Three Colors: Blue, Ordinary People and even the action packed The Gladiator, where the main character becomes a bloodthirsty fighter in order to avenge his family’s death. As depressing as it is, grief is also one of the most fascinating subject matters, because only by talking about it do we realize what’s really inside of us. Tom Ford’s A Single Man is what I consider a film driven by incredible subtlety and real emotions, a film that speaks for us all in a very quiet, distinct way.
The story of George (Colin Firth at his best), a middle-aged English college professor who struggles at coping with his lover’s death and facing the daily routine of Los Angeles in the 1960s, may seem as a simple one. That’s the point. It’s simple but beautiful. George’s lover, Jim, died in a car accident eight months prior to the day we witness. Now George has to learn to live without Jim. Live in his big mansion, all by himself. Live in Los Angeles all by himself. Since Jim passed away, George hates waking up because every time he does so, he’s reminded of the fact that he’s still here. He’s still breathing, and why? If every breath is painful then why breath at all. On the day we meet George, George decides to kill himself. Either he discovers the real reason for living or he commits suicide. It’s one or the other. Living in someone else’s skin is pure torture, real pain that has gotten more and more familiar with George. In fact, ‘George’ is a cover-up: it’s someone who doesn’t exist, it’s the person people want to look at when they look at George. It’s what the world expects from him: clean, neat, intelligent, well-mannered. Gentleman. Good looking guy. Elegant intellectual. Enough of that.
The daily routine of our protagonist: wake up, try to defrost the frozen bread, go to the bathroom and spy on neighbors from the bathroom window, go to school, talk about inspiration and motivating young students to aim higher, smoke a pack of cigarettes, go home. That is what usually happens in George’s life, over and over again. Yet, the day of his planned suicide turns out to be oddly different. His neighbors seem happier than usual. George finally sees a family that doesn’t act like a family, but is a family. The mother smiles to her daughter not because she wants to pretend she’s happy, but because she is happy. The husband and wife kiss not because the whole neighborhood is watching, but because they are in love in a place where finding real love is almost impossible. It’s an unexpected moment of truth and clarity for the college professor sitting on the toilet, spying. It’s a reminder of all the good that still does exist in this world. We may not see it on a daily basis, but sometimes all there is to do is to spy more accurately, like George. Then he goes on to school and for the first time he doesn’t talk about literature, he doesn’t bore his students by talking about Byron or Hawthorne, he finally talks about something that really matters: the unnoticed minorities. The poor and weak. The ones we do not care about. The ones who do not carry ‘etiquettes’ around. It’s something George has had in mind since the day Jim died. It’s something he had to put out there, for someone to listen and understand, and care.
An unexpected connection is made later on in the day, nearby a liquor store, when George accidentally stumbles into a handsome Spanish man, Carlos. Carlos is young, handsome and smart, everything George used to be before age kicked in. Carlos is the symbol of innocence. A young immigrant who finds himself cornered in a metropolis like Los Angeles. A man who finds answers in self prostitution. A child who’s not ready for this big world yet. They both understand each other. Carlos understands George’s grief as they share a cigarette and look into each other’s eyes. They talk about home, their parents, the scary future and the even more terrifying past. “Lovers are like buses. You just have to wait a little while and another one comes along.” says Carlos. George chuckles, but he damn well knows that Jim was one of a kind. Carlos understands. They leave but what they’ve created in those few minutes of conversation is what most of us will never achieve in a lifetime. An instant bond that ends like it began.
Many of you may wonder, Tom Ford? Isn’t he that huge fashion designer whose perfumes I buy? Well, Ford is indeed that. But he’s much more than a simple fashion designer. He’s a gay director with an incredible eye for human emotions. Why do I mention he’s gay? Because in all honesty, I think that only a gay director could have captured the troubled emotions of the mourning homosexual Englishman as well as he did. There needs to be a connection between the director and what’s on screen and here you can feel it. Feel it in your bones. The lighting, the camera work, the subtle movements and cold cinematography. Like Chodolenko’s The Kids Are All Right, in which the story of a lesbian couple is unraveled by a lesbian director, here the story of a gay man living his last few hours trying to find out more about himself is perfectly told by a gay director that actually knows how to make an impact with simple moments of silence, delicate kisses and innocent looks. It’s the vibrating emotions that are all over the screen because the man who directed it, knew what he was talking about. Ford gives us a glimpse at what it feels to be someone who doesn’t want to be himself anymore. Someone who wants to escape.
George does escape. On a cold day in Los Angeles.