Tom Ford v. The Dardenne Brothers (AKA: Style v. Substance)

Warnings : Contains spoilers: if you’re planning on seeing Nocturnal Animals, be warned. Also, this is long, and rambling.

I went to see Nocturnal Animals on Friday.

I had mixed feelings. John thought it was a case of style over substance, he was surprised at all the five stars. Mark was impressed, he liked the style, but he’s also braver than me and is okay with being unnerved. I’m a scaredy cat.

And being unnerved was my first sense, coming out of it. I was shook, I needed a drink. [Reminded me of the time we went to see Blue Velvet with Scally and Sheila in Dublin in 1986. Coming out of the cinema, Sheila said: “I dunno about ye, but I need a gin and tonic.” Ciara said: “I was just thinking the same thing.” Me’n Scally needed a drink too, but we were too ‘manly’ to say it. ]

Nocturnal Animals (based on the 1993 novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright) is a story within a story – twin, linked narratives that intertwine with each other. And the film is really about how both stories compliment and at the same time contrast with each other.

A beautiful ultra-rich woman, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), an art gallery owner, approaching middle-age, living in a cold, modernistic and stylish [there will be a lot of this…] and stunning house in L.A. receives a package: a novel from a former husband she hasn’t seen nor heard from in 19 years. The book, called Nocturnal Animals, is dedicated to her – it was what he used to call her.

Her current husband has to go to a ‘meeting’ in New York so she reads the book alone over the weekend, having given the butler (yes, complete with English accent) and all the staff the weekend off. As one does at the beginning of a film. [Sorry, that was snide, it won’t happen again].


We move from that narrative into the book’s when she begins to read it. The film then switches from one storyline to the other for the rest of the film, but the narrative is firmly about her, it opens and closes with her – it’s her story, really.

The second narrative is a harrowing story of the abduction, rape and murder of a woman and her daughter on a West Texas highway [What is it about Texas? This is the second film about crazy people in Texas I’ve seen recently. Must be the landscape…]. And it is harrowing, extremely tense, vivid, close-up, slow, right in your face. Great storytelling, very disturbing and traumatic. Be warned…

The husband/father was with them during the abduction but he is powerless to prevent it. He comes across as ineffectual and weak. Even when being confronted by the assailants (they are very well done, too – maybe not in the Denis Hopper league [who is?], but still your worst nightmare) his wife and daughter show more fight and resilience.

An important element of the narrative links between both stories is that Jake Gyllenhaal plays both the husband in the novel and also Susan’s first husband. She sees him that way, I guess. And also, his wife in the novel looks very like her, and the daughters in both narratives are very similar.

And the main element of the novel is his perception of his own weakness. He did not protect them, he did not fight, he did not save them. He lived and they didn’t. This haunts him.

[Big digression, please bear with me. In the great book: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson, he explores, inter alia, why there is so much misogyny on Social Media, Twitter especially, and why so much bile is directed at women, and why so much of the trolling involves threats of rape. He asks a woman who is deeply involved, and she thinks that it’s because rape and murder are a woman’s biggest fear. Now Ronson fucks up here and he does something madcap saying that a man’s biggest fear is getting sacked. He’s so wrong. A man’s biggest fear is being ineffectual, being unable to protect his wife and daughter from being raped and murdered. And Tom Ford, to his credit, gets this.]

And a major theme of the main narrative is that Susan perceived her first husband (a struggling, insecure, unambitious writer) to be weak. And he felt it. This is an issue between them and they break up after only a year or two and she ends up with the polar opposite type of man (successful, confident, ambitious).

And, of course, we begin to see that the novel is their story, too, though told in a much less violent way. It turns out that she had had an abortion, without telling him, just before she left him. So he could not, in a way, protect his own child there, either.

But just as both stories are running parallel, the way that Ford tells them both is very different. The Amy Adams character lives in a world that is so stylised that it looks too good for Vogue. Her clothes are designer (the list of credits at the end is ridiculous), she’s driven everywhere, she works in a stunning gallery, her house is amazing, her secretary looks like a supermodel, her husband is Adonis, her office is the size of Croke Park, her friends and work colleagues are straight out of central casting. So far so Ford.

The shots are angular, long shots of staircases, white light, external night shots of the house – there is a coldness in the manufactured bleak stylised beauty of this element of the L.A. dream that mirrors the coldness in Susan’s life.

And Ford is doing all this to contrast with the close-ups in the novel narrative, the in-your-face dialogue, the violence, the sickness, the carnality of it all. He even emphasises this with a wince-inducing outdoor toilet scene.

And the warm close-to-life colours of the novel scenes contrast very strongly with the cold colours of the L.A./art world scenes. If there’s one thing Ford should know about is colour – and he does.

And that’s okay, these are not blunt instruments. The acting is superb, the music is visceral when it needs to be. The bleakness of the novel story is reflected in the harshness of the red-dirted scenery, the hopelessness of the character is mirrored in the vast, intractable landscape.

The stories flow. The dialogue is good, for the most part. The music does its job. The acting is thoughtful, and Amy Adams pulls off the 20 year gap in her life story and she is strong in the closing close-up, when she realises just how much she has fucked-up.

And there is character development in both narratives, and each story needs each other. The cold stylised L.A. art world narrative needs to be broken up with something more real. The horrifically violent novel needs to be interspersed with something less distressing. And most of the switching back and forth is seamless – in fact several moves out of the novel are where we see the impact on Susan, who is reading it. When she puts it away. Thankfully. Did I mention it was harrowing?

There are some grating scenes too, though, some false notes.

The opening credits, for example, features slow motion close ups of dancing, gyrating, obese, naked women, being showered with glitter. They are wearing white boots and red hats, as if in a 4th of July parade. Turns out they are part of an exhibition that Susan is opening. Ford, in one interview (I do my research – it just looks like I don’t) said, interestingly, that he originally wanted them to represent “America today: gluttonous, overfed, aging, sad, tired.” Which he rowed back on, in fairness, here. However you’d still have to look hard for an overweight person in the two stories… […or in one of his couture launches. Okay I’ll give you that one]. Anyway, the credits are mesmeric and unsettling (maybe the point), but on balance, no.

And the scene where the bodies are found in the novel is also bizarrely stylized and is used to mirror another scene in the L.A./Susan narrative. And Ford made the intended decision here to have a very overt transgression from one narrative to the other (he’s not stupid, it’s very deliberate), and I don’t think it worked. It wasn’t needed. We get it, Tom.

There’s another transgression near the end, when the dying husband (I told you there would be spoilers) clutches a cross on a chain around his neck, and lo and behold it switches to Susan who is holding the same cross around her neck as she’s reading the book. Mhm, no, Tom, just no.

And there are parallel shower scenes – no need for it, we get it.

I think we could have done without storyline about the cop dying of lung cancer, which means he has nothing to lose. Although Michael Shannon is verrryyy good, I must say.

I guess that it’s inevitable that Tom Ford would use style so strongly when telling two contrasting stories. If he doesn’t know style, who the fuck does, and of course, it has its place too, as I’ll try to write about in my next blog where it works just perfectly [get on with it].

I guess maybe he just overuses it, to the detriment of the story.

Which brings me neatly [not really] to the The Dardenne Brothers.

Now I didn’t really get what really bugged me about Nocturnal Animals, until I watched The Unknown Girl by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the great Belgian auteurs, last night, and thought about it all the way home. I’ve always liked their straight-forward story telling ways, as well as their stories.


Most of their characters are those on the fringes of society, people whom Frank O’Connor refers to as being part of the ‘submerged population’ and whom he said are perfect for the short story in particular which is why they were so often chosen by Gogol, Chekov, Joyce, all the way down to Carver, Flannery O’Connor, and now (this is me, not O’Connor – people like Kevin Barry and Colin Barrett).

In this case the story is about a young doctor’s guilt over and obsession with a teenage Gabonese prostitute who dies, was possibly murdered, because the doctor didn’t answer the buzzer to her surgery after hours one evening.

And what struck me about the film – and it’s very good, indeed, though not perhaps as rounded as some of their earlier work – is what a polar opposite it is to Tom Ford’s, especially regarding style.

The Dardennes use a very naturalistic cinematic style, very simple shots, mostly close but very long. Some really long. Simple, mostly static camera. Every scene earns its place. They let the actors at it, they let the story tell itself. A bit like Ken Loach. Now we have this scene, now we have that one. This one tells us this, that one tells us that. Because it’s all so natural, the craft itself seems to disappear. It’s all story. It’s like Hemingway at his best. Or Carver, or Updike, or Greene. It’s just the story, this is what’s happening. Look, listen, be in it.

And it’s all played down. Understated.

Here, the doctor, Jenny Davin (played by Adèle Haenel) goes with dogged perseverance about finding out the name of the young girl who died, and puts herself in danger to do so. And it’s so understated. And she wears the same plain overcoat through the whole film. There she ties up her hair before surgery. Here she eats waffles and tomatoes. There, she looks after patients. Here she makes house-calls to plain old people with diabetes in plain old Belgian apartments. There she drives a small car. Here she tries to convince a colleague not to quit.

She is frightened when a pimp threatens her. She is so real. We know her.

As are the husband and wife whose marriage has failed and their young son who becomes involved and is suffering. As is the African prostitute. As is the old man and his son who are angry and frightened. As is the Belgian town, the traffic, these are real lives, as far removed from Tom Ford’s and Susan Morrow’s as you can imagine. It’s real.

But it’s a proper film, too. There is tension, there is drama, there is heartbreak, there are social issues, there is a great story, there is character development, the right range of characters, fine acting; and the way they tell the stories. It appears very simple but it’s anything but. It’s real craft, to let the story tell itself and keep the author/director out of it. It’s real. It’s substantial.

Also there is no music – which is grating, but we put up with it. We get it.

A very difficult thing for a storyteller to do is to leave stuff out. To trust the reader. Not to show off. To put substance over style.

And I think Tom Ford shows off a bit, and gets in the way of the story here and there. And I think the Dardennes stay out of it, and the story wins out.

So I’m with them.

And it’s all good: vive la différence.

Coming up next: maybe the best film I ever saw. A 60 minute Polish documentary I wandered into in The Gate yesterday, and left it a changed man.

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