Costume dramas used to announce themselves as such. Now they’re disguised as soap operas, comedy dramas and art filmsby Sam Leith / March 19, 2010 / Leave a comment
Tom Ford’s debut: the cinematic equivalent of wallpaper
I went to see the film A Single Man, the directorial debut of the fashion designer Tom Ford. It wasn’t my first choice, but I was babysitting and it was the only baby-friendly screening that day.
On leaving the cinema, my daughter having slept, discerningly, through the whole thing, I called a friend who knows about films to ask her what she had thought of it.
“I suppose it was good,” she said. “The thing was, though, it resembled nothing so much as a two-hour—”
“Perfume ad!” I interrupted.
“That’s exactly what I was going to say,” my friend replied, peevishly. “Perfume ad. Well, great minds…”
This exchange caused two thoughts to form in my head. The first—an interesting one—is how narrow the aesthetic vocabulary of perfume ads must be if the look is that unmistakable.
If you think about it, it is: the cast (beautiful in a long-lashed, lips-parted sort of way) the cinematography (Vaseliney), the pace (dreamlike), the palette (rich, muted), the setting (period). Some tangle of neurons in our brains has been conditioned to recognise when we’re being sold scent. Had the Roland Barthes of Mythologies—that virtuoso of the semiotics of washing-powder ads—not been involved in a nasty accident with a laundry van, I reckon that he would have had interesting things to say about perfume ads.
The bigger thought was: how have we got to a state where an aesthetic so narrow can dominate a feature film—and be admired for doing so? The aesthetic of the perfume ad works fine at selling perfume: but at telling a story about real people? Not so much. That’s why A Single Man is so bizarre.
Colin Firth’s performance, as everyone says, is faultless. As a stiff, lonely, recently bereaved homosexual English teacher in 1960s California, he is required to look like a wet Wednesday, and a wet Wednesday is exactly what he looks like… albeit an unusually handsome and well-dressed one: the sort of a wet Wednesday you’d shelter from under a Paul Smith umbrella.
He ambles around being morose, clipped, yearning—while around him, good-looking youngsters smoke languidly, bat their eyelashes and flare into Technicolour when they stir his lonely old heart. Hilarious. It resembles no school, no bereavement, no California, no Earth that any of us would recognise.
In Ford’s defence, he probably doesn’t think there’s anything remotely hinky about his film: he may even think it’s a documentary. After all, this is no doubt how the world looks to him. As creative director of Gucci since 1994 he probably can’t remember the last time he met someone who wasn’t a model.
Just as the Queen, apocryphally, imagines that all buildings smell of wet paint, Ford must assume that all men under 30 are honeyed concatenations of shoulder blade and cashmere sweater, with sensitive but defiant eyes; and all women past 40 are gin-sodden fag-hags of showily ruined magnificence.
My point is that I don’t think his film is an outlier. It’s a prominent example of a growing subgenre: films and telly that are more than incidentally a showcase for fashion design or an overarching sense of style. There’s a lot of it about. Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes had sharp scripts and acting, but what really excited people was their period styling. The same applied to the acclaimed television dramatisations of David Peace’s Red Riding books. And, as far as I can tell, the main distinction of the otherwise so-so drama Mad Men—beloved by all—is the vintage stuff: all those Martini glasses and cantilevered bosoms.
This is nothing new—Dynasty was all about the frocks in a way EastEnders wasn’t. Oxford’s honeyed stone was a key character in Inspector Morse. Merchant Ivory’s productions of English classics, like Andrew Davies’s goatish Austen adaptations, drank deep from the mind-chilling well of the picturesque.
But costume dramas—for that’s what these are—used to announce themselves as such. Now they’re sneaking in disguised as other things: soap operas, comedy dramas, art films. They look almost like the real thing, only glossier, emptier—like those bodysnatching replicants you see wittering on about “shots of colour” and “rough luxe” in the pages of Livingetc.
I wonder if there’s some analogy that can be drawn. The decorative arts are to fine art, perhaps, as the costume drama is to proper drama. There’s less to say about them—and they have less to say about the world.
I don’t think it’s Cromwellian to submit that if you’re paying as much attention to the clothes as you are to the characters, you’re making the cinematic equivalent of wallpaper. Perfect, as it happens, when you have an infant to entertain.