Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 08, 2009 12:59 pm 
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A glossy, muted 'Brokeback'

As his directorial debut designer Tom Ford has made a highly accomplished, lushly -- a little too lushly -- beautiful film about a gay man struggling with tragedy -- the recent death of his lover. The story, from Christopher Isherwood's elegantly simple novel of the same name, set in 1962, concerns an Englishman living in Los Angeles, a professor of literature, who, in Ford's version, lives in unreal splendor. He is like a Fifties fantasy of tasteful bachelorhood. His house resembles a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. He has an immaculately ordered wardrobe housed in a beautiful wooden dressing room. He drives a lean, classic Mercedes hardtop two-seater. Most elegant of all, he is a suave Colin Firth, whose understated suffering is tempered with good manners and restraint. Sweeping string music takes us back and forth between the present, as George Falconer (Firth) goes bravely through the day, and a halcyon past when he savored perfect moments with his lost companion of sixteen years, Jim (Matthew Goode, the movie Brideshead Revisited's Charles Rider), a handsome young American met romantically outside a seaside bar wearing Navy whites, now dead in a car accident on a trip to visit family.

It's all too exquisite in its sweet sadness, and George's friend Charley (Julianne Moore), a boozy divorcée, also English, also lonely, lives in another kind of equally glamorous dream house, the glitzy overdecorated kind, a fitting showcase for a woman whose expensive clothes, beehive hair and elaborate makeup accompany a grand manner.

And though George is inconsolable, and his life now -- the story recounts only one day of it -- has been reduced to just going through the motions, he seems to be offered some choice opportunities to forget his troubles. He's being relentlessly stalked by a fresh-faced and pretty young male student called Kenny (Nicholas Holt, the BBC "Skins" star, like Goode actually English but playing American) who might be any gay teacher's fantasy. Coming out of a liquor store George encounters a to-die-for young Spaniard, Carlos (Jon Kortajarena, a former Ford model) a dreamy Mediterranean James Dean with a Castilian accent who's ready to jump into the Mercedes and into bed. These scenes are all in the novel, though one imagines George in casual tweeds and all the accouterments so splendidly on view are less significant in the book than what simply happens. Sometimes in this film the visuals completely take over.

Even George's suicide preparations are nice to look at, as well as genteel -- the way he's received politely by name at the bank when withdrawing valuables and arranges important papers and keys on the floor for people to find, leaving a handsome wad of cash for his irreplaceable Latina housekeeper. Charley is a great friend; her invitation to dinner tête-à-tête at her place causes George to put off self-immolation and they share a discreet drunk together and have a wonderful laugh dancing the twist. This scene is superbly done and Julianne Moore, an American playing a Brit, does some of her best acting ever.

If it feels overdone, on the other hand Ford's film is unquestionably cinematic in the way it drenches experience and memory in inter-cut images, and what could be more 1960 gay than remembering a beach scene with one's lover as if it had been photographed in black and white by the German Thirties sensualist Herbert List?

Even though it's a mite too gorgeous and glossy, this is an admirable and in some ways quite wonderful film, and that's because its emotions, however muted, seem real. Designer Tom Ford would not be expected to do things inelegantly. Gay man Tom Ford would not be expected to cast any but the most delicious young men. (Colin Firth isn't young, but his performance provides us with the richest depiction of an older gay man in film since John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday.) If Ford overdoes the poshness, he doesn't distort or satirize the period. Though this is an immaculate world -- even a pesky little boy with a toy pistol is perfectly turned out -- there is real, believable suffering.

George has his Brokeback moment, a flashback scene of the time when he got the phone call informing him, belatedly and with the unspeakable buttoned-down cruelty of the straight world of that era, of his longtime lover's death. If Colin Firth doesn't get an Oscar nomination on the basis of this scene alone, but also for all the richly modulated moments throughout the film, Hollywood will have performed another of its Brokeback travesties -- proving that it only pretends to be gay-friendly but when it comes to hard truths, prefers to look away. Because there's a lot of hard truth behind the gloss, about the "invisible" minorities George speaks of to his literature class on Huxley's After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, about how it is to grab private happiness from a world of meanness, and about hedonism. Isherwood knew whereof he spoke, and Tom Ford, working with David Scearce on the screenplay, gets those parts absolutely right.

Isherwood's own longtime relationship was recently chronicled in the documentary Chris and Don: A Love Story.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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