Good Grief: Style and the ‘Single Man’

BY Ray Suarez  January 8, 2010 at 2:16 PM EST

George Falconer’s longtime lover, Jim, has just been killed in a car accident, and George, a British college professor teaching English in the Los Angeles area in the early 1960s, cannot bear to live without him.

Based on the 1964 Christopher Isherwood novel of the same name, “A Single Man” is the cinematic debut of Tom Ford, an artist who, until now, was known for his role as creative director at fashion house Gucci. His foray into filmmaking made viewers keen to see how he would deliver the narrative through his use of style onscreen.

“Life and death are equally beautiful, equally seductive, as are as the sets, the faces, the cars and the clothes, which Ford designed himself,” wrote Betsy Sharkey, film critic for the Los Angeles Times, in her review of the film.

The movie has also garnered great critical acclaim for its acting; at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September, it snagged a best actor award for the film’s star, Colin Firth, and is now up for three Golden Globe nominations, including one for Firth and one for actress Julianne Moore.

Credit for the beauty and elegance of “A Single Man” also goes to Spanish director of photography Eduard Grau, and Dan Bishop, the production designer on “A Single Man” (who is also responsible for design on AMC’s critically and aesthetically acclaimed drama series ‘Mad Men’).

In order to achieve an era-appropriate look, “A Single Man” uses a grainy film stock, but sharp lighting, evoking midcentury cinema when films were still actually shot on film, and a modernist prescription for clean, architectural design.

Color is almost its own character in the story, shifting radically from heavy gray and washed out tableaus to sharp, colorful scenes: The camera hones in on pink roses on the dinner table, the blue eyes of an eager college student, the red lips of a neighborhood housewife.

Notes Sharkey, “Color adds its own subtext, with Ford and director of photography Eduard Grau creating a shifting palette: color leaching out of George any time he distances himself from the real world.”

Art Beat spoke with Eduard Grau, director of photography for “A Single Man,” about his filmmaking process and techniques. Listen to that interview and watch a slide show of stills from the film:

Film critics have pointed out references to the work of stylish auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock in “A Single Man.” Grau says that while the Hitchcock reference is obvious (in one scene, George stands in front of a billboard portraying Janet Leigh in ‘Psycho’), references to Pedro Almodovar and Wong Kar-wai — as some critics have insinuated — were not intentional.

“It’s not like we did it consciously….Personally, I don’t think they look that much like Almodovar and Wong Kar-wai films. It’s a great thing to be said about the film, but it wasn’t conscious.”

Grau says the aim of his cinematography was to “to transmit something, to communicate something, to make the audience feel something different.”

But by attempting to make the audience feel something “different,” Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” translates what the novelist Edmund White once called “the first truly liberated gay novel in English” into a universal — and visually compelling — story of what it means to struggle with grief and the loss of love.