by Karen Han
Coming from Tom Ford, the former creative director of Gucci and now, one of the most well-known names in fashion, A Single Man caused a splash as a film not just of immense style, but of uncanny substance as well. His latest, Nocturnal Animals, seems to follow in its footsteps. Featuring two narrative threads — one real and one imagined — that become harder and harder to untangle, the film looks just as beautiful, though this time that beauty covers something distinctly different in color. Nocturnal Animals is a story of betrayal and revenge, whereas A Single Man was a meditation on love and heartbreak.
From the prose of Lolita to the imagery of Drive, there is a long history of using beauty as a lens through which to view ugliness. Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is maybe the most recent example of it, as the film’s sumptuous sets and costumes give way to a story that twists and turns with as much verve as a horror movie, and make us complicit as the characters betray each other. Beauty becomes a way of making the audience a participant in the story. However, it is ultimately still a love story, whereas Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon can’t boast that kind of warm center. Beauty isn’t a vehicle so much as it is a theme; it’s prized and fought over by the characters, masking monstrous impulses that culminate in a literal bloodbath that is still filmed as if it were a designer campaign. A further sense of unease suffuses the film through the manipulation of time, as the images are set up to look like magazine shoots; sequences play slowly despite how harrowing the events taking place may be.
It’s David Lynch’s work, however, that remains the master of juxtaposing the beautiful and the ugly things in life, mostly because the two are inextricably wound together instead of taken as layers or tools. In each of his films, there isn’t a single shot that couldn’t have been pulled from a dream. Blue Velvet in particular fits into this category, as Jeffrey Beaumont’s idyllic impression of suburbia becomes subsumed by the world that Frank Booth and Dorothy Vallens inhabit. As ugly as Frank’s impulses are, there’s beauty in his world, too; Ben’s lip-sync to “In Dreams” is spellbinding, as is Dorothy’s rendition of “Blue Velvet.” Jeffrey’s initial take on the world isn’t disingenuous because it’s completely false; it’s because you can’t have one without the other.
From its reception at Cannes, it’s already clear that Nocturnal Animals will take audiences for a ride, an impressive feat in and of itself, given the bar set by A Single Man. How Ford has used his impeccable eye remains to be seen, but the film is sure to be a gorgeous reprieve from the white, grey, and black palette of winter outside the movie theater.