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…