Film in Oxford: Melancholic Luxury in ‘A Single Man’ and ‘Nocturnal Animals’

Tom Ford, after only two films, has captured and developed a distinctive style — aesthetically clean cut, and inhabited by quietly soulful and lonely characters.

A Single Man (2009) saw Ford’s directorial debut, having already established himself in the fashion world with his self-named designer brand. To recap A Single Man: the film focuses on middle-aged (moving into older age) George (Colin Firth), dealing with the recent and sudden death of long term partner Jim (Matthew Goode). It is through George’s perspective that we experience a world where normal moments transform into things of beauty, caught in the camera’s admiration. Throughout the film close-ups of fleeting objects — a young man’s lips, a boy’s smiling face, a girl’s dress, a torso in the throes of action on a tennis court — suddenly and subtly move from muted tones to blossoming colour. It is techniques such as this, poetic techniques, that make Ford’s movies so exquisite and melancholic.

Both A Single Man and Nocturnal Animals open with a preface scene of slow motion bodies in suspension, with Abel Korzeniowski’s pained strings filling the soundtracks for both films. In A Single Man this introduction is underwater. An androgynous body, fragmented by the camera’s close-ups, writhes fluidly in tinged blue-grey light. Nocturnal Animals opens to naked and obese bodies set upon on a red velvet stage, garnished only with small hats and batons or sparkling pom-poms, welcoming us into Ford’s oneiric world. These sequences, particularly the latter, bring to mind a quality often and elegantly captured by photographer Richard Avedon — by taking a nuanced look at the texture and folds of the human form, Ford shows us that all bodies are beautiful.

Where A Single Man fleshes out its characters’ psyches with frequent flashbacks, Nocturnal Animals has three defined and interlocking prongs of narrative, of which central character Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is the key. The first prong is the present day, set in Los Angeles with current husband Hutton (Armie Hammer): the second is the past, set in New York with first husband Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal); and the third is an imaginary world set in west Texas. This third temporal space bridges the former two by resurrecting Susan’s memory of her past husband in the present day. Early in the film, in the present day), Susan receives a manuscript that Tony has recently written (itself entitled ‘Nocturnal Animals’). As she reads, we enter a cinematic rendition of the manuscript, unfolding as she consumes the written words in the diegetic world, birthing a film within the film. It is clearly through Susan’s imagination that we witness the manuscript come to life, as Tony is cast as the manuscript’s main protagonist, Edward (Gyllenhaal plays both Tony and Edward) and Susan is visibly distressed as tragedy strikes the figures thinly veiled as herself and her daughter in the text. This allusion to Susan within the manuscript is specifically pronounced by casting Isla Fisher as the (fictional) wife, easily confused with Amy Adams in terms of appearance.

The three paths are given equal screen time and attention, all expressing heartbreak as a collapsing love unravels. Each segment interweaves with the others, with match-cutting smoothly transitioning between the temporal planes. Though not all details are explicitly explained we are, by the end, presented with an unbroken portrait through time and space. The casting and acting are all superb. Adams shows particular skill as Susan when reading and reacting to the manuscript. Gyllenhaal, as Tony, is wonderfully sensitive, his growing love for Susan indicated by a self-deprecating smile emerging over their first dinner together. Armie Hammer is also noteworthy as colder husband Hutton, distant with Susan, as if his business-minded attitude creates an barrier to her affection. Because of these nuanced central performances, we are able to ascertain that Tony and Hutton represent facets of Susan: Tony as the person she is and Hutton as the person she thinks she is. This is vocalized somewhat during Susan’s conversations with others, in particular during dinner with her mother (another great piece of acting by Laura Linney). In this pivotal scene, Susan’s mother describes ambition as more important than love. Prophetic, this notion comes to take hold in Susan, demonstrated by her choice of successive husbands.

As with A Single Man, the high-style visual presence of the film is quite striking. Everything seems perfectly placed, almost mannequin-esque in its poised delicacy. All clothing, props and objects have a streamlined, slick appeal: polished and rarified like a showroom. In present day, Susan works in a contemporary art gallery and this quality of the hyper-clean aesthetic of modern art display is carried over into all the other enclosed environments. The domestic spaces are rendered fairly indistinguishable from the work places. Nocturnal Animals tangled me in its net of crisp textures. Had it been more crude in its critique of ambition overriding love it could feel similar to Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016), but escapes this comparison by the pained and beating heart at its centre. (Instead of a heart, The Neon Demon has only a cynical laugh.) For all the privilege the characters and settings are couched in, Nocturnal Animals sent ripples of heartbreak through the screen, offering the potential for a profound engagement with the viewer.

When one falls in love, time and duration seem to split and you can seemingly dream for hours in a matter of minutes. During my time with this film, I never once looked at my watch. I never thought: this will end soon, or wondered when the closing credits would roll. I was captured in the affective forces of the faces, the narrative thrusts, the darkness of heartbreak that becomes its own emotive economy as it falls on the darker side of love. Nocturnal Animals is an elegant luxury, a smooth and alluring surface, shot like a perfume advert for a scent I want to smell forever, that doesn’t go rancid, that smells like the bodies that wear them, the smell of skin, the taste of desire. Susan and Tony, the dark creatures of the past, present and fictional, wove themselves into my mind and my body as my eyes caressed the illuminated screen. Despite only having made two films, Tom Ford has already set an auteur-like standard of meaningful style in his cinematic works and I am excited to see his future endeavors.

James Lawrence Slattery

‘Nocturnal Animals’ is now playing at the Phoenix Picturehouse and begins at Ultimate Picture Palace on December 3rd.

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