Things I expected from Tom Ford's adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novel "A Single Man": Some lovely suits. (I don't think this was unreasonable.) Ravishing cinematography. Fastidious production design. An intense, perhaps even synesthetic affinity with the sensual world. Some well-toned ass.
All were duly accounted for.
Things I did not expect: An innate sense of composition and editing. The attentive direction of actors. (Colin Firth, in particular, delivers probably his finest performance here.) A deep feeling for cinema. With just one feature to his credit, Mr Ford has proved himself an infinitely more fluent and natural filmmaker than, say, Stephen Daldry.
Nor did I anticipate the film's powerful emotional punch. No mere play of elegant surfaces, this is a love story - and an extraordinarily moving one. But it's also a study of a man searching in vain for reasons to live, almost as powerful, in its way, as Louis Malle's great "Le Fou Follet".
To say this came as a surprise is something of an understatement, since I have to say, I've always found Tom Ford faintly ludicrous. Perhaps it was his public image: those crisp white shirts typically open to the sternum, revealing a carefully depilated expanse of tanned flesh; his moodily lowered chin and smouldering gaze. Or those Vanity Fair shots of him draped over and across various naked young women, in whom he clearly has about as much interest as Karen Carpenter at a pastrymaker's convention. He's a talented designer, no question of that (I cherish my pair of narrow-cut black Gucci trousers), but when he announced he was quitting PPR to commence a career as a filmmaker ... well, let's just say my hopes were not exactly high.
In this, however, I was proved wrong. Very much so.
Set in Los Angeles during the dark days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film is shot mostly with a desaturated palette, which surges into deeper colours whenever the protagonist's attention is caught by a man (or woman) he finds attractive. The result bears the influence, not only of Douglas Sirk, but of Hitchcock - notably in a momentary flirtation between Firth's George and a handsome young Spaniard, which takes place in front of a giant poster for "Psycho". (And which then fades, from deep blue to something washed-out, almost invisible, as the very air around them seems to shift, into livid reds and pinks and mauves. Occasioned by the sunset, yes, and "the Los Angeles smog", as the young hustler notes ... but also something more subjective, more urgent.)
Yet interestingly, the film is less "a gay movie" - early reports placed it somewhere between "Un Chant d'Amour" and "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" - than a study of romantic yearning and erotic fascination, in which many of the main characters happen to be homosexual. (Ford declared, at the press conference, his intention to make a universal story, albeit filtered through the perspective of a gay man.) And if it is "a gay movie", then it is one with barely a trace of Camp: the tone here is by turns contemplative, impassioned, elegiac ... but not for a moment does to descend to common kitsch. Nor is it ashamed, or furtive. On the contrary: this is a love that most definitely dares to speak its name.
This is not special pleading - I'm certainly not suggesting this is a gay flick it's "okay" for straights to like (and I suspect anyway that many won't). But I do think it might represent a distinct step forward for American queer cinema, since in normalising the characters' desire, and integrating them more or less seamlessly - and largely on their own terms - into a fully-realised fictional world, it abandons many of the tendencies that have stymied and continue to dog gay-themed movies: the descent into caricature; the tongue-tied hedging of the issue or - its obverse - the need for weary, Bruce LaBruce-like shock-tactics. Such strategies might have been necessary back in the dark days of 1970s, or even the 80s - but now? it's 2009, folks. They're here; they're queer ... we're used to it.
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To no one's great surprise, Ford's debut snapped up the "Queer Lion" award for the best gay film at the festival - the kind of honour that usually seems as self-abnegating to me as having an "African-American section" ... why allow yourself to be judged by the diminished expectations of the ghetto in which others wish to consign you? But then I saw a press release from the "Fiuggi Family Festival" a far right-wing organisation which has this year sponsored a "Pro Life" award at Venice - and done so with the apparent blessing of festival director Marco Mueller, to his shame - and the existence of the Queer Lion, and the defiance it symbolised, began to make a little more sense. One can only assume the Fiuggi organisers have the blessing of Italian president Silvio Berlusconi - who is, after all, nothing if not synonymous with wholesome family values.
As with most everything else in Italian society, Berlusconi casts a long shadow over this event; not for a moment are we allowed to forget his presence behind the scenes - not when one of his many media interests, Medusa Films, has produced most of the Italian entries in competition. Reflecting the ongoing scism in Italian society, there is a smattering of jeers and cheers each time the company's logo appears onscreen - at least, at the public screenings. (The Italian press, being these days mostly owned by Mr B, seem rather more circumspect.) Nor when we look around at the festival's buildings, with their reek of jackboots and Il Duce.
And especially not when Michele Placido, at the press conference for his Medusa-backed feature "Il Grande Sogno" ("The Big Dream") was asked by a Spanish journalist whether, as an ostensible man of the Left, he felt any qualms about accepting the coin of Signor Silvio. The director suddenly erupted, turning nearly incoherent with rage, before calling an abrupt end to the press conference and storming out of the room. ("So ... that would be a No, then?" a British colleague observed dryly.)
Better known locally as an actor, Placido's ninth directorial effort, his follow-up to 2005's pulpy "Romanzo Criminale", is essentially more of the same. Set in 1968, on a Rome university campus, it's a kind of idiot's version of Marco Tullio Giordana's "The Best of Youth" ... only this time, from the point of view of a young cop, seduced by the student protesters' idealism after being sent to infiltrate them. So bourgeois it makes Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" look like "The Hour of the Furnaces", its pounding rock score, barrage of rapid cuts, and scenes of crowds marching hither and yon to no apparent purpose, ensure that it plays like nothing so much as an extended trailer for itself. Placido's paymasters, you sense, would approve.
Far better, in every respect, was Giuseppe Capotondi's "La Doppio Ora" ("The Double Hour"), a genre flick of remarkable inventiveness and complexity, a modern giallo that boasts one of the most finely-calibrated screenplays of the year. Its set-up is simple: a foreign-born woman, a chambermaid in a Turin hotel, meets a security guard at a speed-dating evening, and they begin a relationship ...
To say any more would be to surrender many of the pleasures of this gripping, consistently inventive film. Suffice it to say that the drama is reminiscent, at times, of the late Fabian Bielinsky's "The Aura"; that its second act is quietly terrifying; and that, by the third, the pieces of the puzzle have clicked together as satisfyingly as clockwork, as each mystery is revealed and every question answered. It was one of the finds of the festival. Predictably, the Italian press despised it.
Still, at least it won an award (for Ksenia Rappoport, as Best Actress), which set it apart from most of the films at Venice I liked best. For the record, I don't think the Todd Solondz film ("Life During Wartime") is nearly sharp or funny enough - though this appears to be very much a minority opinion. Nor did I think the "Huis Clos" intensity of "Lebanon" made for anything more than a clammily intense spectacle. Technically accomplished, it had no emotional power, just a handful of tedious archetypes squabbling loudly over War and What Is It Good For?
Apart from Jessica Hausner's "Lourdes", I thought the best film in Competition was Claire Denis' "White Material", which saw plantation owner Isabelle Huppert stubbornly trying to ignore a civil war in an unnamed African state, a scenario reminiscent, at times, of V.S. Naipual's "In a Free State". Though for once lacking her usual collaborator, the great cinematographer Agnes Godard, Denis' singular genius was in full bloom, here: no other filmmaker composes images quite like her, or tells a story so elliptically and yet so well.
Still, I don't think I can improve on Denis' own description, in her Director's Statement from the press notes to the film, in which she described it as "the conduit of a primitive, visceral obsession: fortitude struggling against lassitude, against slackness." After twelve days in on the Lido, I know exactly what she means.
Check out Shane Danielsen's previous dispatches from Venice 2009: