Bright Lights Film Journal

Multiple Senses: Tom Ford’s <em>A Single Man</em>

“Ford creates a unique cinematic experience in which the visual, the aural, and even the olfactory mix to produce a powerful synesthetic experience.”

Tom Ford’s directorial debut, A Single Man, received mixed reviews, and he was accused of failing as a director because of his insistence on stylizing the story. As a result, the film looked more like an ornamental visual project deriving from Ford’s background in fashion. Furthermore, what most people seem to remember after the projection is Colin Firth’s brilliant performance as a gay English professor, George Falconer, who loses his partner of sixteen years. However, there is much more to this adaptation (after the eponymous novel by Christopher Isherwood), as Tom Ford creates a unique cinematic experience in which the visual, the aural, and even the olfactory mix to produce a powerful synesthetic experience, to the point that viewers can see, hear, and indeed almost smell George’s desperation and anguish.

The first component of Ford’s synesthetic display plays out visually, through an insistence on gradual changes of color. When George experiences flashbacks, the film often switches to black and white, which marks the obvious temporal separation. But at several moments taking place in the present and within the same shot, the filter of the camera shifts from darker tones to vivid primary colors. This technique initially appears to be a cinematic artifice, but it actually echoes George’s state of mind, and it brings him to life metaphorically (and by extension revives the film itself). George is constantly moving back and forth diegetically between the present and the past, and he is also contemplating suicide. Thus he walks a thin line between living and dying, and the color alterations of the film emphasize these two extremes exactly — dark and light, death and life.

The olfactory component offers an essential element to George’s struggle between life and death. On occasion, he inhales deeply, as if to reassure himself that he is still alive. When he is at the office, the secretary is talking to him, but he drifts away and focuses on a spot close to one of her ears. He takes a deep breath, and then guesses what perfume she’s wearing. In a later scene, he sees a dog in someone’s parked car, and because the pet reminds him of his partner’s dogs, he goes in close to sniff the head of the fox terrier. This habit becomes a minor fetish, as George struggles to replace the lost physical presence of his lover through the act of breathing and smelling.

The few fades in the film reverse the color-changing effect noted above, as light slowly goes out and life is obscured. The use of fades also suggests that the visual fails, or is in the process of failing to be the primary, diegetic source. At other times, the camera itself attempts to pull George out of his misery but fails. The staple shot of the film is the close-up, and on several occasions we go even deeper, to extreme close-ups of eyes, ears, and mouths — a pattern that reinforces the idea that this is a film about the senses. The camera is stuck in an intimate relationship with the character, and it leads to a claustrophobic feeling within the audience. In one scene, George is sitting on the toilet looking outside at his neighbors. In three separate instances, the camera attempts to move away from him, from the counter-perspective, but it does so only slightly, as if it cannot move too far away from the character. This scene is evidently voyeuristic: hidden inside, George gazes outside. Strangely though, that trajectory inside-outside is doubled by the fact that George is emptying his bowels at the same time: another inside-outside movement.

Beyond this scene, voyeurism does not play a great role in the film, but we do have an obvious reference to Hitchcock’s Psycho. When George goes to buy cigarettes and gin, he parks his car in front of a large billboard featuring Janet Leigh’s head, eyes wide open and frightened, and the title Psycho to the left of the frame. The billboard is a showy choice by Ford. First, billboards are usually placed higher up, not at eye-level. Second, the action of the film takes place in 1962, and Psycho came out two years before, so the chances of its poster, particularly one of this size, still being out are slight. Hitchcock shot Psycho in black and white, even though color was available to him. Ford’s George wears only black and white throughout the film: in a color(ful) world, he prefers the simplicity — or perhaps the decreased visibility — of black and white. In this scene, George and Marion Crane (Leigh’s character) briefly blend. His last name is Falconer, which reminds us of a bird, as does Marion’s last name. They are both victims of love, but more importantly, Marion’s frightened eyes serve as a warning that things will not end well for George either. Leigh’s large head stands in for the mythical Medusa head that turns men into stone. After George buys the cigarettes and gin, he meets Carlos, and then they both return to the car and smoke. They keep their backs to the poster, as if to avoid the grim fate the image portends. But the gesture is futile; George was already turned into stone when he became a single man.