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All movies are art-directed to one degree or another. But “A Single Man,” un film de Tom Ford, is all art and no direction — it’s a picture made up of visual choices with almost no filmmaking sandwiched between. Set in California in 1962, the picture — based, very loosely, on Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same name — opens with an ending of sorts: College professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) tries to come to terms with the death of his lover of 16 years, Jim (played, in flashbacks, by Matthew Goode). George, a British expat, is a reserved sort who favors Michael Caine glasses and narrow, dark suits. He’s not given to florid displays of emotion or even to nurturing close friendships: His dearest friend is Charley (Julianne Moore), a needy, boozy, melodramatic divorcee with whom, in his youth, he had a brief sexual relationship. George still adores Charley, though perhaps not quite as much as she adores him (she hints at one point that she still wishes they could “work” as a couple). And though she at least pretends she wants to help him, she exists far outside his suffering: He’s lost to everyone, drifting along in a world that has been grayed out — quite literally, in Ford’s vision — by his grief.
There may be hope for George, in the form of a sensitive student in a fuzzy Ed Wood sweater that screams “Touch me!” (played by Nicholas Hoult, the now rather grown-up actor who, as a kid, appeared in “About a Boy”). And throughout the movie there are small crumbs of evidence, scattered here and there, that Ford really is trying to use visuals to connect with some real emotion in the story. But aside from what some of the actors bring to it, “A Single Man” is less a finished, fleshed-out movie than it is a mood board, one of those collages of images and colors that designers sometimes use to help define and fine-tune the vibe they’re going after in their creative ventures. There’s also an unflattering, simpering self-pity at the heart of it, a quality that isn’t present in Isherwood’s book. Ford, who adapted the screenplay (working from an earlier treatment by David Scearce), has invented certain plot elements wholesale and twisted others beyond recognizability. It’s not enough for George’s character to be quietly devastated; he has to be suicidal as well, because Ford can’t resist that extra flourish of dramatic icing.
Ford is a designer at heart, best known for the collections he put together for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, and his clothes were often elegant and refined. But that fine-grained sensibility hasn’t carried over into his filmmaking. Everything about the look and feel of “A Single Man” is mannered, and nearly every image looks to have been borrowed from somewhere else: a Vogue fashion spread circa 1963 here, a late-’80s Bruce Weber for Calvin Klein ad there. Filmmakers borrow all the time; there’s nothing wrong with it. But Ford’s borrowings are both canny and canned: There’s an aggressive artificiality about them that makes them feel smug and arty — they exist for their own vanity, not to serve the story. When George drives to a liquor store, he parks his car in front of a giant billboard of Janet Leigh in “Psycho” — except the billboard is at ground level, not elevated as billboards usually are, and it’s clear that the plan is for George to pull up right between Leigh’s terrified eyes. Why? Because it looks cool. At another point, George lays out sets of keys, cuff links, envelopes, a suit that has quite obviously been freshly pressed, as if he were setting up a catalog shoot. It’s not George’s sense of order that’s at odds with the story — he’s clearly an orderly guy. But at this point in the narrative, his character is burrowed deep in pain, and the finicky, fussed-over quality of the images, as Ford presents them to us, is an affront. Ford (with the help of his cinematographer Eduard Grau) wants everything to look just right, but he’s not using images to get at the interior life of a character; he’s setting a banquet table, moving each fork one-quarter of an inch, rotating every plate a smidge counterclockwise, readjusting the folds of each napkin so the points fall just so.
The result is a static, lifeless picture with a bad case of montage-itis. Again and again and again, in the moments when George briefly emerges from his funk, his gray world gradually shifts toward highly saturated color: A woman’s pillowy lips go from a flat, dull pink to poppy-colored; a handsome lad’s sallow cheek acquires a lively flush. But Ford is so entranced with his own images he can’t see beyond them. And he repeats motifs to the point of exhaustion: He never met a curlicue of eyeliner he didn’t like.
If only he liked people as much. Moore, one of the most gifted actresses working today, is made to look blowsy and faded, and there are traces of cruelty — unintentional, I hope — in the way Ford and Grau fixate on her wide-open, laughing mouth. Moore’s performance is uncharacteristically forced and mechanical — this is a very rare instance in which she looks uncomfortable not just in her character, but within her own skin. Goode and Hoult are charming enough, and they’re certainly beautiful to look at. But they never seem fully relaxed; it’s as if they’ve intuited that they’re just pretty pawns in a grand scheme.
But the most frustrating thing about “A Single Man” is that it isn’t wholly dismissible, a glossy trifle we can wave off as easily as Moore’s Charley might stub out one of her fuchsia-colored cigarettes. Firth’s performance — which won the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival — is one of the finest of the year, a wondrous surprise at the heart of this otherwise preening, shallow movie. In an early scene, when George receives the news of his lover’s death over the phone, he’s told that the memorial service is for “family only.” I don’t recall seeing even the tiniest shift in Firth’s facial expression. Yet it’s as if George’s world had suddenly moved, by inches or millions of miles, that much further away from the sun.
It doesn’t matter if the movie around Firth is a good one or a lousy one: Either way, I wouldn’t be able to explain how an actor could come up with a performance as subtle, in both its heartbreak and its magnificence, as this one is. What Firth offers here is a surprise miracle of moviegoing, one of those loaves-into-fishes moments you can never see coming. It’s also a reminder that while the actor’s craft demands discipline and preparation, the best result he or she — or we — can hope for is the one that’s unplanned. In the midst of Ford’s austere aesthetic fussing and arranging, Firth is lovely every minute. And it’s so much harder to be lovely than it is to be beautiful.