"For the past eight months, waking up actually hurt," George Falconer informs us. "My heart had been broken, and it is as if I’m sinking, drowning, and I can’t breathe."
Despair, we learn, has tightened its grip on George in the months after an accident that claimed the life of his lover and partner of 16 years, a younger man named Jim. Memories of their life together haunt George’s waking and his sleeping, while any vision of a meaningful future eludes the 52-year-old English professor.
"For the first time in my life, I can’t see my future," he says. "Every day goes by in a haze. But today, I have decided, will be different."
Indeed, George has decided that this day (in October 1962, it should be noted) will be his last.
The day is, in some ways, like any other: George teaches his class and lets his friend Charlotte continue thinking they’ll have dinner together later.
In other ways it is a day like no other: George methodically sets his affairs in order, cleans out a safe deposit box, writes suicide notes and leaves instructions about which clothes he wants to be buried in. It’s grim business.
Then two events throw the professor’s plans into disarray: A phone call from Charlotte and an unexpected connection with a student named Kenny—who’s seeking a relationship with him.
After Jim’s death, George concludes that life is not worth living if all that sustains him is his memory of their relationship. Obviously, that’s not positive. But during his conversations with Charlotte, Kenny and his other students, George poses significant questions about how we find meaning in life. Is life tolerable, for instance, if it seems our best days are behind us? How do we cope in the present amid aching emotional pain? How do we face the future when it is so different than we had hoped? The questions are good ones, even if George’s own answers aren’t.
At one point, Charlotte complains, "Living in the past is my future." But that complaint doesn’t elicit any sympathy from George. "If we are not enjoying the present," he tells her, "There isn’t a great deal to suggest the future will be any better."
In class, George diverts his regular teaching routine into a discussion about fear. It begins with broad brushstroke observations about why people fear minorities. He then gets increasingly personal about his own anxieties: "Fear of growing old and being alone," he says, "Fear that we’re useless and that no one cares what we have to say." In this sense, the film invites viewers to intelligently reflect upon what they fear, from death to loneliness to rejection to discrimination.
George is reading and teaching British writer Aldous Huxley’s book After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, a satire about a rich Hollywood man afraid of death. Echoing Huxley’s sentiments about American narcissism and consumerism, George grumbles about his students’ near total focus on materialism—which he believes comes at the expense of grappling with important ideas.
George is unusually kind to a couple of people on what he believes will be his last day. He leaves a large tip (several hundred dollars) for his housekeeper, Alva. He goes out of his way to compliment a secretary’s appearance at his school.
Brief mention is made in George’s class of Jesus’ words in John 15:25, "They hated me without cause." That leads to a discussion about whether Huxley was an anti-Semite and whether the Jews were hated without cause as well. Reading between the lines in this conversation, it seems clear that George sees a connection between the Jews as a persecuted minority and homosexuals as a persecuted minority.
A near-death vision implies that George and Jim will be reunited in some kind of afterlife.
We see the bare side of George’s naked body as he repeatedly dreams about slipping ever deeper into darkening water. Another dream sequence features him giving a good-bye kiss to Jim, who’s pinned beneath a car and already dead. In flashbacks, George kisses Jim two or three more times.
George has a picture of Jim naked on a beach. (Jim’s leg obscures most of his groin, but some pubic hair is visible.) Elsewhere, camera shots focus on bare men’s chests, torsos and mouths to illustrate George’s lust for them.
Kenny’s flirtatious advances on George result in the pair spontaneously deciding to go skinny-dipping in the ocean. We repeatedly see their bare backsides.
At George’s house, Kenny removes his underwear in front of the older man. (The camera sees him from behind.)
In an anonymous homosexual encounter, George flirts with a male prostitute at a liquor store. He gives the man some money, and the man follows him to the car—where George ultimately changes his mind and says he isn’t interested in sex after all.
We see Charlotte in her bra as she prepares for her evening with George. And the two share a kiss—that she’s obviously more passionate about than he. She laments that she and George—after conducting a brief romantic and sexual relationship when they were much younger and living in London—didn’t get married and have a family and a normal life.
The opening scene is a dream in which George envisions Jim partially pinned beneath a flipped automobile. Blood is smeared across Jim’s face and a dead (also bloodied) dog is next to him.
On the brink of committing suicide, George repeatedly puts a loaded revolver in his mouth as if he’s trying to find the best position.
[Spoiler Warning] Just as he decides not to go through with pulling the trigger because he’s so happy to have met Kenny, George has a heart attack and dies.
A young girl who lives next door captures a butterfly and gleefully crushes it by rubbing it together between her hands. In the context of George’s life—he’s watching as she does the deed—it seems to symbolize how cruel life can be or perhaps that mainstream America crushed and destroyed the dreams of closeted gays at that time.
The same girl says that her dad calls George "light in his loafers," and she implies that he wishes George was dead.
George hits his head on a rock while skinny-dipping.
Crude or Profane Language
Three misuses of God’s name (two paired with "d‑‑n") and two s-words. We also hear a handful of other vulgarities. And George makes a crude comment about dogs sniffing other dogs’ rears.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Smoking, smoking and more smoking. It’s 1962, and just about everyone smokes—almost as if to prove it. Charlotte is especially fond of her cancer sticks, using fashionable holders and even smoking in bed.
Drinking—both beer and hard liquor—is equally common. Several scenes take place in bars. Charlotte and George knock back drinks at her house and are obviously quite drunk. George takes a swig of whiskey from a bottle in his desk drawer. And he buys one last bottle of Scotch before trying to kill himself.
Kenny asks George if he’s ever done the hallucinogen mescaline and seems quite enthralled with it. George relates a cautionary tale of shaving his eyebrow off while high on the drug and tells Kenny to stay away from it. But Kenny seems undeterred in his enthusiasm, saying, "If you ever want to get high, sir, I usually have some dope."
Other Negative Elements
One of the neighbor children, we hear, regularly tormented George and Jim’s dog. Jim laughingly relates how he saw the dog urinating on the boy one day. In a dream sequence later, George imagines urine pouring down on the boy’s head after the boy shoots him with a squirt gun. George also tells the lad, "Would you like it if I killed you? Keep it up, and you might find out."
George reads a book on the toilet. (We see his bare legs with pants around his ankles as he gets up to answer the phone.)
Three things stand out to me after watching A Single Man:
1) This is a story about a homosexual man, his desire for other men and his struggle to cope without the attentions of any man.
2) This is a story that asks big questions. What do we do with death? Is it possible to find happiness amid disappointment?
3) This is a story about images. First-time director Tom Ford is an iconic fashion designer, and his ability to frame images that establish a certain mood plays a role in how his film communicates. We get lots of close-ups on body parts—lips, torsos, chests, eyelashes. We get slow-motion reactions. Ford’s camera loves men and their bodies. So much so that at times scenes feel more like cologne advertisements than cinematic sequences.
So what Ford ends up with is a self-consciously stylish movie that provokes deep and serious thoughts about life, death and relationships. Specifically homosexual relationships.
A Single Man is loosely based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel of the same name, a story that literary critic Edmund White described as "one of the first and best novels in the modern gay liberation movement."
Ford’s film makes me understand what White means.
Though some sexual activity is alluded to, A Single Man is not Brokeback Mountain. Instead of dwelling on passionate, raw encounters, Ford spends considerably more time detailing how George and the men in his life talk and relate to each other.
One flashback, for example, shows George and Jim reading together on a couch. It’s a scene that feels intimate without being particularly sexual. And moments like it seem designed to make audiences more easily empathize with George as he ponders exactly what he’s lost in Jim’s death. They shared more than sex, Ford is saying. So George is losing more than sex.
Instead of obsession, we’re shown intimacy. Instead of unbridled infatuation, we’re shown mature mourning. Instead of "I wish I knew how to quit you," we hear, "I will miss you, dear friend."
The overall effect of such an approach is to make homosexual relationships feel exactly the same as heterosexual ones.