When one talks of the unspent energy and inquisitive experimentation of a director's first film, several examples immediately come to the cinephile's mind. Orson Welles' Citizen Kane of course, but also Truffaut's 400 Blows, Godard's Breathless, Cassavetes' Shadows, Polanski's Knife in the Water, Lynch's Eraserhead, Linklater's Slacker and Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Many of these filmmakers have gone on to make better and more grandiose films (though in two cases I don't think they have) but what their debut films all have in common is a certain fervor for filmmaking that explodes on the screen as their filmic vision, though not yet toned or refined or perfected, is nonetheless electric with possibilities of eventual greatness. It is this very same unspent energy and electric possibilities and inquisitive experimentation and fervor for filmmaking that makes fashion designer turned first time auteur Tom Ford's A Single Man so mesmerizing to watch. Well that and Colin Firth in his greatest performance yet - but we'll get to that in a moment.
Meanwhile, Ford has structured his film, which is based on Christopher Isherwood's seminal gay novel of the pre-Stonewall days of the nineteen sixties, as part fashion show, part experimental bon mot. Succulently designed from bottom to top - the sets, the decor, the music, the make-up, the clothes (Mr. Firth's wardrobe provided by...you guessed it) - and filmed with an everchanging color palette that moves with its protag's bottom to top moods. Highly, and quite openly, influenced by Julian Schnabel and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Ford's first foray into filmmaking is a surprisingly sharp and nuanced work of cinematic art. Not a great film necessarily, but as strong a first step as one can ever be expected to take. Simply put, Tom Ford's A Single Man is a great first film. Perhaps he will go on to prove a great filmmaker someday with greater and more grandiose films, but for now, his nubile, unknowing prowess in untested waters and his innovative and (somewhat) unique perception of how a film is to work and play are more than enough to make a person sit up and say whatever it is one says at a time of career changing personal achievement such as this.
Now, about this Colin Firth fellow. I must admit to never being a fan of Colin Firth but also to never disliking the actor's work either. I suppose a rather aloof indifference has always been my way of looking at the work of Mr. Firth. From his time as Mr. Darcy to his dalliances with Bridget Jones right on through to his playing Joan Crawford to Hugh Grant's Bette Davis in their ongoing onscreen and offscreen rivalry, my outlook on the English-born thespian has been that of noncommittal disinterest. That is until my eyes were opened to the actor's talent when he stole the show from everyone, even the always wonderful Kristen Scott Thomas, in this past year's surprisingly enjoyable Easy Virtue. Now Firth is center stage in what may very well be the most difficult and strenuous role of his twenty-five year career. Playing a college professor in 1962 who loses the man he has loved for twenty odd years and now planning on ending his own life as well, Firth is beyond brilliant in the proverbial role of a lifetime.
Acting as much with his eyes as with his body (though he does show off the latter in a late-inning skinny dip scene) Firth shows a remarkable subtlety that this critic had, until now, been totally and stupidly I suppose, unaware of. With a showy supporting assist from Julianne Moore as his best friend and (almost) confidant, Firth's tragic hero is not just the heart, but also the entire circulatory and nervous system of Ford's daringly deviceful debut. Perhaps once everything is said and done (and that ending - wow!) Tom Ford's A Single Man is not just a great first film, but just a great film...period. [01/21/10]