March 06, 2010

A single man

Martin Heidegger argued that death is the true individual act. We cannot share it, we cannot do it together, it is the ulitimis finis but also the utmost aim of our characters. At our resolution we are ironically for Heidegger most ourselves. Heidegger's theory has had a huge influence across the 20th Century and through his followers, from Hannah Arendt to the postmodernists, his influence has spread across the globe. Heidegger's thesis is one of those that we can criticise, we can think about through art, and in a sense Tom Ford's recent film is most interesting at the points at which it reflects on and criticises this central thesis of Western modernity. Ford's film is about a college Professor who lost his partner to a carcrash. George cannot recover from Jim's death and no balm will ease his tears. We are presented with a picture of utter desperation, depression and loneliness- Colin Firth playing George presents us with desolation in its purest form, not Father why hast thou forsaken me (for every Father must) but lover why hast thou forsaken me.

George's loss colours every experience. He wanders through a school of ciphers- students who are interchangable, their glee seems in several shots like mockery of his loss and of his commitment to literature and the arts. His longterm friend, Charlotte, cannot comfort him as she too is hurt by her individual loss and sees his loss as an opportunity for him to play the role in her life that she always designed for him. Friends prove a broken reed, society disappoints. Occasional encounters bring back moments from his life with Jim to the fore- whether it is seeing a dog whose breed ressembles that of their dogs or talking to a Spanish kid in a parking lot. Seeing a photograph prompts a reminiscence about a moment on a beach that he and Jim spent together. Memories create their own isolation- they are a history shared by only George and the dead.

The film is skilful because the director creates the impression of following events through the eyes of George, this is a subjective film. It is a film in which we see the fragrance of a flower, the fragrance of a dog no less. We learn to observe that time has its own rhythms- that looking a jacket can last an hour and walking to work a couple of minutes. The camera has a very close intense focus allowing us to absorb every iota of the changing emotions George is subject to. We can also gather how his friends and others behave around him. This is central to the purpose of the film because it wants to rouse the intensity of experience that George feels- both positively and negatively. It makes the film slow- too slow for at least one of the people that I watched it with- but that lack of speed is neccessary for the slow emersion that the film promises you.

There isn't really a story here- an emotional evolution that questions Heidegger's assumptions about life and death, loneliness and sociability. Jim tells George at one point that he would wish to die as a social experience- not live with the possibility of future loneliness. The anguish is a common anguish for all human beings- whether it would be expressed differently in a film about heterosexuals is a different question but what I think this film does is make the experience of George losing Jim a universal experience. It does not ghettoise and is not a film about rights, it is a film which demonstrates that any relationship involves similar feelings and similar feelings of loss as it ends and therefore deserves the same respect. But that's not so much the point of the film: its point is to explore that loss and what it means for Jim and whether he has a life to live after it. In a sense, Heidegger's maxim is refuted by the loneliness that Jim feels, the loneliness he feels coming to life or waking up, the loneliness he feels whilst living.

Loneliness for George is only redeemed through an extatic sense of union with others- a mysticism of friendship or fellowship you might term it. In a sense this is what George imagines to have had with Jim and possibly one of the ways to define love itself. Any film about lost love profers a definition of love and the film's definition of love is that it represents an escape from loneliness. Unrequited love such as Charlotte feels for George is lonely and purposeless: requited love is purposeful fellowship. The film has flaws of course- depending on your mood it may test your patience, occasionally it luxurates too much in its abundant imagery but the central performance is well crafted. It took me a while to get into the film- my entry to its world lasted 45 minutes by by the time it closed I was involved and interested. Less a story than an atmosphere, I think the film works and works mainly because its leading man gives one of the performances of the year- by Colin Firth.

If this film is right, then Heidegger was wrong. To be individual is to feel unloved and to the essence of humanity is not to be found in its loneliest moments.


James said...

Well, I jolly well hope Heidegger is wrong, because I must confess of his universal influence that this is the first I've heard of it. That's a comment on my limited reading, rather than British sarcasm about an intellectual opinion. On the other hand, Heidegger doesn't SOUND like someone who is going to be right about anything, does he?

This is just a superb review. You're on one hell of a roll at the moment. I hadn't been planning to see Colin F's latest romcom, but will seek it out now. Excellent, TG.