(2016, Tom Ford)
[2 out of 5 stars]
[Image courtesy of © Universal Pictures]
When I think of Tom Ford, I think of ultra-luxe, stylised, meticulously art directed fashion images. These images come from his fashion shows, his ad campaigns, from his breathtakingly gorgeous debut feature film A SINGLE MAN and even image of the well-groomed man himself. But after seeing NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, I now think of something else: images of dull, beautiful people doing dull, beautiful things. The stylish house where gallerist Susan (Amy Adams) lives in with her impossibly gorgeous husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) is nice to look at but so mundane in its stylishness. But even when Ford dares to embrace subversiveness, it doesn't arouse any strong emotions. Probably because you can isolate any images, or themes or storyline and it is easy to think of ways in which that has been explored more deeply somewhere else.
It begins with the opening credits which shows naked obese women in parade outfits dancing in slow motion in front of a red curtain and showered with shiny glitter. It is not the bodies that are vulgar, in fact, it is the most beautiful part of the frame but it manages to be both repulsive and mundane by how they have been presented - in a circusy, distasteful manner - naked apart from majorette hats and boots. British artist Jenny Saville portrayed women's bodies in a much more direct and honest way through her paintings. The paint itself highlights the provocative beauty of the subject's flesh and the artist's gaze confronts as it looks up towards the subject or by positioning the bodies so that they occupy most of the space in the frame in a claustrophobic way. Sure, it is revealed immediately after the opening credits that this display is just part of the art exhibition organised by our protagonist. But it still leaves a bitter taste in my eyes that I can't blink away even as the story begins.
The story itself tries to be complex by blurring the lines between fiction and reality by utilising a story-within-a-story structure. Amy Adams is sent a manuscript from an ex-lover, Tony, played by Jake Gyllenhaal who also plays the main character in the fictional narrative. The film cuts to and from between the two realities and occasionally flashes back to their relationship. The editing is well-executed with match cuts that disorients but still somehow maintains a consistent mood. Tom Ford chose the same editor, Joan Sobel, from his previous movie who excels at blending the past and the present (she also worked as a first assistant editor in the KILL BILL series). The fictional storyline is set in the dark of night of West Texas, a gritty contrast to the sleekness of Susan's bubble. But again, I feel like I've seen a lot of fantastic desert thrillers this year (HELL OR HIGH WATER and BLOOD FATHER) that are much better. Tony's family is terrorised by a group of thugs that recalls Haneke's FUNNY GAMES and CACHE or the final car scenes of Breillat's FAT GIRL. It just feels derivative and something I've already seen before, even though it is brilliant technically and visually.
There are deviations from this monotony, with credit to the cast of supporting actors. I always get a jolt of excitement whenever Jena Malone enters the screen. Here, she plays a junior art curator who gets excited about an app that lets her watch her baby and his nanny while she works. She looks like she walked straight out of THE NEON DEMON set and her bold, dark energy is a welcomed reprieve from the incredibly boring main story.
Despite the elegant visuals, I can't help but feel something is really lacking in this movie. You can tell that Tom Ford is very much in control of the all his projects, whether it is in film or fashion but this overly meticulous way of working can sometimes get in the way of something great. I am eagerly anticipating his next feature, which will hopefully take even bigger creative leaps, something that is genuinely daring and less beautifully dull.