Digging into a deep well of grief is never the easiest thing to watch when going to the movies. We generally want our films to be upbeat, happy or full of thrills. When a film like A Single Man comes along, it stands at the polar opposite of the majority of films in the theatre. In the end, that makes it more satisfying because of its difference. The human experience involves many things throughout the course of our lives and A Single Man is brave enough to tackle the most damaging of all--the death of a loved one.
Set in 1962 Los Angeles, George (Colin Firth) is haunted by memories of his lover Jim (Matthew Goode; Leap Year), who died in a car accident eight months earlier. George is near catatonic in his grief, and his early morning mantra is "just get through the day." If George can make it until the end of one day, he can get to the next and the next and so on. Bereavement buried this deep in the mind can only be faced one day at a time as the future is completely irrelevant to someone in as much pain as George.
The film follows George as he spends a routine day attempting to be normal as he faces the dulling monotony of his now-lonely life. He is a college English professor, so he goes to teach a class, he meets attractive men in parking lots, he goes to the bank to take care of personal business, he drinks a lot, he spends the evening with a close friend and he laughs whenever he can. Most of the day is spent lost in memories.
Memories are a dangerous thing when it comes to grief. Spending too much time lingering in the hazy daydreams of what used to be can paralyze you in an impossible to get out of stasis. Memories can make the past look more pleasant than the present, and they can make the future pointless. George has forfeited his hours into this futile fantasy world of what was and what will never be, and he's finding it burdensome clawing his way back to normalcy.
Based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man was directed by first time director Tom Ford. Ford's previous line of work has been as a fashion designer for his own line and for Gucci. You would expect Ford to have an eye for style, and the film is meticulous in that regard. Ford gives screen time to the minutia of good design from the era: clocks, clothes, furniture, architecture, cars and more clocks. He also focuses on human elements of style with close-ups of hair, lips, eyes and bodies throughout the film, which help to create a level of intimacy between George and the people he comes in contact with during the day.
The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Eduard Grau. The color palette of the film is mostly a grey tone that changes in vibrancy when George is thinking about the past. Memories are bright, vivid and alive. We literally see the color in the film change from the dull grey to over-saturated tones right before our eyes when George encounters something that gives him pleasure, desire or happiness.
This color change is an interesting trick but utilized a little too much by Ford. Since this is Ford's first film, he tends to go a little over the top at times. He breaks out all kinds of techniques--slow motion, distortions, soft focus, lots of shadow and the already mentioned color changes. While I admire his desire to be creative at every turn, sometimes the emphasis is placed on what Ford has chosen to do as the director rather than on the story itself.
A Single Man is blessed by an amazing performance by Colin Firth. He's the dignified, sturdy backbone of a wonderful film about a man dealing gracefully with the crushing loss of his lover for 16 years. Working in tandem with Firth in the lead, Tom Ford has crafted an artistic, powerful exploration of loss and the memories that besiege someone facing such a moment. Highly recommended.
Lost in Translation
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee sets up a premise early in the movie. We see a dinner party where a group of friends surround a table talking and eating. Pippa Lee (Robin Wright) stands separate from them in the kitchen, listening to a toast about her by one of the guests. He calls Pippa an enigma, a mystery that he's never been able to decipher. This doesn't sit well with Pippa as she desires to be known and understood. The movie begins to tell the story of Pippa, layer by so-called important layer.
The film begins to flashback to key moments of Pippa's life, while never losing track of who she is now in the present. We see her birth as a fur covered baby, her childhood with a tumultuous, pill-popping mother (Maria Bello), her teenage years (Blake Lively) as a runaway that includes a few weeks as a soft-core model and her lost years in her twenties before she meets her much older, soon-to-be husband Herb (Alan Arkin). Their courtship plays against the mundane pattern of routine their lives have become in the future.
Pippa's present life is spent as a passive observer to all that is around her. She exists in the world of her husband, kids, friends and neighbors, but they've all given up or are frustrated by her remoteness. There's an emotional disconnect to Pippa. She's an enigma because she's distant and keeps people outside her inner world. She sleepwalks at night and has been sleepwalking through her days as well for a long time. This might change when she meets a brooding man (Keanu Reeves) who seems to be in a worse funk than her.
There's a fine line to maintain a precarious balance between past and present when a film jumps back and forth in time periods as much as it does in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. In this case, it doesn't work. The film, unfortunately, too often mirrors Pippa. It's cold, remote, emotionally artificial and disconnected. It never draws you into its twin stories of Pippa's life that was and the life that is. Neither are all that interesting and both are rather dull. This is just another failure from the film's writer and director Rebecca Miller.
There are similarities between The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and other films by Miller. In her two previous films, The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005) and Personal Velocity (2002), Miller made equally frustrating movies where she doesn't let the viewer into her stories. There's a wall up between the characters and the audience. The infuriating thing about it is Miller's films masquerade themselves as having a raw honesty to them, but if there is an unseen barrier in place, how are we supposed to sympathize or delve into the emotions the characters have? We don't. We get to witness, but we don't get to share, and that makes for a very unsatisfying experience.
It's a shame this isn't better as there is a good performance had from Wright, a wonderful and underused actress throughout the years. Wright has a directness to her, an exposed quality that should lend itself well to dramas such as this. She's perfectly cast with the odd combination of blank slate with a churning level of apprehension beneath the surface. Maybe next time.
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is another disappointing film from writer/director Rebecca Miller. She wants to take us into the world of this woman and unpeel the layers of her life so that we're interested in seeing how she became the woman that she is. The problem is, neither the woman of the past, nor the woman of the present, is worth spending a couple of hours getting to know.
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