Faire bande à part, la douleur exquise ….
The other day I watched ‘A Single Man’, having recently watched ‘The Kings Speech’ I am (in the latter stages of) developing a hazy sort of love through admiration for Colin Firth. I plan on watching ‘Mumma Mia’ on repeat to rid myself of these confused feelings, anyone else who needs cleansing feel free to join me.
‘A Single Man’ based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Isherwood is directed by first timer and Gucci impresario Tom Ford, and is, what I think, a masterpiece. If you’re looking for ‘Children of Men’ style cinematography, you’ve come to the wrong place. Everything about this film is quite exquisite. Scene by scene, shot by shot, it is framed perfectly and neatly, the production design by the Mad Men team is impeccable in it’s accuracy and elegance, the styling is polished and intentional, the acting is superb and the story is heart-breaking.
‘A Single Man’ recounts a day, the last day, in the life of an English teacher living in L.A, Joseph. This day is seen through the eyes of a man seeing the beauty of the world for the last time, safe in the knowledge that he’ll be taking his life at the end of the day. Though Josephs perception of the finality of this last day on earth is prevalent, it is, as far as everyone else around him is concerned, a day just like any other. The earth keeps turning. So because of life’s necessary routines we see what day to day life is like for him since the love of his life, Jim died in a car accident. But it’s less a life, more going through the motions on autopilot. We walk through his house with him as he gets ready in the morning and by the time the phone rings a matter of minutes later we have witnessed numerous day dreams of Jim, triggered by everything tangible around Joseph.
As sarcastic and cynical as I can be (with good reason, mind) I am a closet romantic – and when I say romantic, I am a sucker for those stories of loving someone above all else. Which is probably why I enjoyed this film so much. A friend of mine fervently disagreed with me and called it “weak.” An accidental yet interesting word used to critique the film as the character Firth plays in the film is anything but weak, the story nothing but a testament to a rare strength.
‘La douleur exquise’ literally means “the exquisite pain” it comes from a medical term which defines a pain which morphine cannot dull. It’s meaning has become something used to describe that indescribable pain of being hurt by the one you love. That dull ache, that feeling of having nothing, not even breath in your chest. The romance of a pain that can only be brought about by love and life. Of course it’s in French.
This is a feeling I’m sure we are all, or the majority of us are familiar with to a lesser extent. You love someone, they say they love you, you trust that they mean what they say, then they screw you over and it hurts. They will probably come back and profess undying love when you leave, but it is of little use then – you can rest assured that it was all merely time passing and in many cases, little more. Some people will say it takes losing the one you love to make you really appreciate them. This is “weak” in my opinion and I find it very annoying. If you loved this person then you should really have appreciated them when you were with them, they haven’t changed, they’re just not with you anymore, they can live without you because they have also realized you didn’t really appreciate them when they were around. What you are actually experiencing is a form of guilt, a blow to your ego and shame. This is, unfortunately, commonplace. It could be that we’re all so terrified of getting hurt that we only allow ourselves to fall a certain depth and feel a certain amount. We are all now so aware that most things are fleeting and lacking real significance. Everything is so replaceable. There’s always more out there isn’t there?
How depressingly reassuring.
There are rays of light however. There are occasions as with this story that two people meet each other and forget about who can hurt who and who could do what and allow themselves to feel what everyone is looking to feel, but too scared to find. They stopped doubting. Nice one guys.
But herein lies the risk, and yet again, it’s our bloody mortality. This person could love you with all of their heart, think nothing but of you, care for no one but for you and then they die. It’s not their fault but they’ve hurt you because they’ve left you. So you leave it for a respectable period of time, and go out and find a new one. This is where Firth’s character is a rarity; this is what makes this film so wonderfully tragic. It’s that he knew he had found someone who was, to him, irreplaceable. To whom nothing compares. He knows that there is little point in searching for what he had in someone else because it’s not there, he would be searching for something that is lost to the living.
This is a concept his friend Charlie – played by Julianne Moore finds impossible to comprehend, she has also loved and lost, but through divorce and she did not love like he did. Which I think is sadder. That cliched quote of “tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.” Charley, though Joseph’s best friend is and has always been in slightly in love with the idea of Joseph. Yet this man is unattainable not only because of his sexuality because of his love for Jim, which Charley is unable or unwilling to fathom. As depressed as Joseph is, she has not been, let’s say fortunate enough to be able to comprehend his love for Jim, the men she has loved she has not loved in the same way and they have not loved her to the same extent in return, she mocks Joseph’s relationship with Jim and urges him to get over it in the hope that she will enjoy the same love Jim did. She will not. That love was a one time special, like a DFS sale claims to be, it was a one off, in Josephs life.
Quite the opposite of my friend, I think there is something incredibly strong and noble in Joseph’s actions. His attempts to continue his life quite aware that most of it is little but a routine, there are moments of course, that as he points out, keep him going but it is simply existing and little more than that.
Though blasted for being “de-gayed” I agree with (the gay) Ford, that besides niggling rules and regulations, the fact that Firths relationship is a homosexual one, is of little importance. Firth represents a man we all secretly wishes exists. A man whose love does not even dwindle even through death. Like the sad swan, he loves for life.
Which brings me on to my next point – monogamy. Mmmm … yummy.
“Can I have seconds?”
“No, one helping only.”
There is this modern argument that monogamy is a modern, romantic and near-impossible idea. That we have been deluded by fairy-tales and films and that we are not intended to love and be with one person for the rest of our lives, I hope this is only true to the extent that you’re not designed to be with the wrong person for the rest of your life. Hence brake-ups. The fact remains it is still everyone’s desire; it is just that it is as rare as they make it out to be. I could blame the squillions of people (statistically accurate) on this planet, increasing the amount of chaff you have to sift through, the amount of fish you have to chuck back. But I’m not sure it has anything to do with that. It’s down to the individuals. Not the daunting, sprawling world as a mass.
But the fact that monogamy is a modern ideal is blow, and what better way to cement my argument with some science, that’s right ladies, hold tight ‘cus here it comes ….
Surprisingly the male penis, contrary to popular belief and experience is a symbol for monogamy. Like mice and cats the human penis used to have small sharp, barbed follicles on it. As naturally, monogamous relationships occurred, over many years the penis lost its spines (‘How the Penis Lost it’s Spines’ – sounds like a ‘Just So Story’, Rudyard Kipling might’ve missed a trick here…) to make sex with the person you loved a pleasant experience rather than a painful one. Mice don’t give a shit, they’re in and out. Players for life.
Now, though I said the fact the relationship being a homosexual one was of little importance, the fact that the character Firth plays is a man, is. In line with my frequently played card “men are egotists, women are masochists” it is far more common to find a widow to never re-marry, having felt they can love only one man than to find a widower feeling he could only love one man/woman. But he does. He found the man he loved beyond all others.
The depth of Joseph’s pain is highlighted and contrasted at the same time by the beauty of everything around him. It had to look exquisite to do his pain justice. Everything seen with peaceful, melancholic eyes. We see the small beauty in things that gets him through the day, to the point where after a brief feeling of youthful invincibility he has a heart attack and dies. Which is surprisingly the least tragic part of the film, it feels like a relief. He is no longer a single, solitary man. No longer ‘fait bande à part.’
To be honest, and it may well just be my permanent sense of foreboding but I find it all very depressing. The odds stacked against us, I don’t quite understand why it’s so hard. Maybe it is there are just too many people on this earth. Maybe too many people have told us all too many things. Maybe I’m just exhausted of hearing about people behaving like fucking dicks. It is a terrible shame so many have so little truth in them.
But, against all odds and foreboding, and with ever-present naivety, I continue to live in hope. I have hope in man. As a wise cleaner once said to me “hope is the last thing to die.” I shall continue to hope it doesn’t before I do.
So, here’s to hoping, to la douleur exquise and to those little rays of light who make it worth while for all of us …