Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel A Single Man, which forms the basis of a new film by the fashion designer Tom Ford, depicts a day in the life of a gay, middle-aged English professor at a Los Angeles college who, after losing his partner in a car accident, becomes involved with a student. The film is the very definition of style over substance; a single scene of the documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story—a film that looks at Isherwood’s life and his long relationship with the artist Donald Bachardy—carries more sentiment than A Single Man contains in its entirety.
While Ford is clearly adept at making beautiful suits—the film’s décor and costume design, stylish skinny ties and all, is stunning—he doesn’t seem able to make the film anything more than a superficial, glossy advertisement for his own bespoke garments. Not that it shouldn’t be a stylish film—the source material and time period clearly almost demands such—but Ford should have been able to create a fantastic dramatic narrative out of what is widely regarded as some of the best prose of the last century—a book Edmund White once called “one of the best novels of the Gay liberation movement.”
The film—which is set in the autumn of 1962—marks Ford’s directorial début, and was adapted by Ford and a Canadian screenwriter named David Scearce—who knew Don Bachardy through friends and wrote the first draft of the film. It spends the bulk of its running time peering at its protagonist, George Falconer (Colin Firth) through various panes of glass, at odd angles, occasionally dipping into fantasy sequences and flashbacks. The latter scenes are—because Ford seems wont to religiously follow a sort of canonical cinematic ‘rulebook’—shot in black-and-white.
Unfortunately, this comes off as simplistic and unimaginative, rather than stylish, as Ford presumably intended—and, because of the script’s almost complete lack of emphasis on character development, the film has no strong characterisation to fall back on. To impart that George feels isolated, suicidal and lonely, Ford uses blue filters and drains most of the colour from the frame. George, because he’s so depressed, plans to take his own life numerous times throughout the film, and continually arranges everything around him—clothing, furniture, even the bric-à-brac on his bedside table—fastidiously, a process Ford gratuitously fetishises and takes (too) much delight in overemphasising.
The only rays of light in his world—in an America weary of the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, where the Cuban missile crisis lingers on the horizon—are his childhood friend Charlie, played by Julianne Moore, and a student in one of his classes, played by Nicholas Hoult (TV’s Skins), who wore an awful jumper in About a Boy, and is stuck in an awful jumper here too. (Both attempt the opposite of their natural accent, the latter doing only marginally better than the former.)
Moore’s Charlie looks a bit like a hung-over Julie Christie, and sounds basically the same. But while the performances are bearable—and in Firth’s case, actually quite good—Ford’s tackiest tactic is annoying: he ramps up the colour whenever the camera finds Hoult’s face—to imply, unecessarily, that George’s life “gets a little brighter” whenever he sees the object of his desire.
Instead of emphasising this in the writing, or creating characters with whom an audience could identify, Ford tries to cram in myriad references to other films and filmmakers: semi-slow-motion montages set to tango-like music and a focus on wall-clocks bluntly recalls Wong Kar-wai, and musical allusions abound, to Clint Mansell’s music for The Fountain and Bernard Hermann’s score for Vertigo, for example—and the latter cue is bluntly employed in the lead-up to a scene which has as a significant visual element a wall-sized mural depicting Janet Leigh in Psycho. Last, but not least, Ford uses the aria from a fin de siècle opera by the Italian composer Alfredo Catalani called La Wally in a crucial scene—problem is, he didn’t look very far for inspiration: the same piece appears very prominently, and repeatedly, in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva, and was also used in Jonathan Demme’s 1993 aids drama Philadelphia.
The problem with Ford’s emphasis on the film’s ‘look’ is that it leaves little room for audience identification: we’re asked to look at a group of people from a distance, with panes of glass and lots of fastidious fussiness separating us from them. The characters Ford has created here are isolated and distant; they’re barely characters at all, in fact—they’re so anesthetized and anaemic that they become dull and uninspired shells of the novel’s versions they’re based on, and they don’t have a shred of the vibrancy that is so apparent, for instance, throughout Chris & Don.
Though it focuses primarily on Don Bachardy, Tina Mascara and Guido Santi’s documentary also tells Isherwood’s life story—from his early years in 1910s England, to his formative years as a writer in Weimar Germany where he described that country between the wars in what would become his most famous work, Goodbye to Berlin. The book was adapted for the stage in 1951; that play was adapted to the screen in 1955, and the book again appeared on the stage in 1966 as “Cabaret.” Circuitously, “Cabaret” was then turned into the 1972 film of the same name starring Liza Minelli, where the source material—and Isherwood’s writing—was to find its widest and most mainstream audience. Chris & Don, however, covers Isherwood’s life really only in passing, and concentrates on Bachardy, who at about age 16 met Isherwood on Valentine’s Day 1953. Thirty-some years separated the two, and for thirty-some years they would remain together, until Isherwood died from prostate cancer, at the age of 81, in 1986.
The film follows the couple’s travels around the world and the ups and downs of their relationship, but the most emotionally affecting—and most interesting—part of the documentary is at the end, when Bachardy recounts Isherwood’s final days, weeks and months. Bachardy—who, within a year of meeting and falling for Isherwood had begun to imitate his accent, and consequently sounds a little like Yoda, Sam Hunt and Truman Capote rolled into one—was encouraged in his mid-twenties by Isherwood to take up painting, and so studied portraiture.
As Edmund White puts it, Bachardy “recorded [Isherwood’s] collapse” into death by drawing and painting him, sometimes a dozen times a day, until he died, and even—a fact that feels somewhat morbid but also proves a tender revelation—for a day after he was dead. There are many literary and artistic precedents for such a cataloguing of the imminent approach of death: there’s Simone de Beauvoir’s 1984 book Adieu: a Farewell to Sartre, as White points out, and, some twenty years after that, Annie Liebovitz’s would take a series of beautiful black-and-white photographs of Susan Sontag as she lay dying. (Sontag’s son David Reiff would later label the photographs “carnival images of celebrity death,” saying his mother would never have let herself be “humiliated posthumously” in such a way.)
Bachardy’s drawings and paintings, according to White, “give the appearance of a man [Bachardy] seeing simply and more purely than any draftsman I know,” and are “the most disturbingly transgressive images I have seen of a man, a beloved man, dying and dead.” It is in this transgression, and in this segment near the end in which Bachardy describes the drawings and paintings, that the documentary finds its emotional crux—herein there is much, much more gravitas than appears in the entire 101 minutes of A Single Man.
The film is filled with wonderfully-restored 16mm footage—much of it shot by Bachardy himself—that shows Isherwood’s famous friends like Igor Stravinsky, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, among others, acting naturally in front of the camera in remarkably intimate, low-key settings. Chris & Don is a tremendously interesting film that examines the collision of two artists separated by the societal ‘norms’ of their day but bought together by a love not only for each other but of life itself. It is far warmer and more human than any frame of A Single Man—a cold, botoxed piece of cinema that has, inexplicably, been largely praised by critics and the public alike.
A Single Man opens on Thursday. Chris & Don is out now on DVD.