What is the origin of the work of art? How does art relate to the life and experiences of the artist? These questions are raised in Tom Ford's 2016 film Nocturnal Animals. Ford is a fashion designer, the auteur of a previous film, A Single Man, that I recall admiring. Ford is fantastically handsome and has a great eye -- he is said to have saved the Gucci brand from failure. He has also been accused of objectifying women and designing offensive advertising campaigns based upon that practice. Ultimately,
Nocturnal Animals looks great and is beautifully mounted -- but it's mostly eye-candy, a feast for the eyes that looks so glamorous that the audience is encouraged to forget the fact that there is almost no substance behind the spectacular and provocative pictures.
It's best to address the provocation first since this is solely a matter of décor, doesn't really relate to the themes in themes in the film and appears to be a defiant gesture on the part of the director. The picture begins with images of grossly obese naked women, middle-aged and dancing provocatively -- the women are wearing drum majorette hats. Later, we see these same fat and naked models lying on mattresses in the middle of an art gallery. The fat ladies are an art installation and they are justified by the script as being an exhibition mounted in the gallery that the heroine, Susan, operates in LA. The fat ladies are an obvious provocation -- the point, I suppose, is that Ford is putting imagery that overtly objectifies women at the very outset of his film; it's an "in your face" strategy, that some people might find offensive because the director is a pretentious, ultra-pretty male homosexual. An element of homosexual esthetics relates to dramatizing a problematic relationship to the female body. Women are either shown as glamorous, ethereally beautiful "Stars" (as represented by Andy Warhol, for instance) or as nightmarish "hags" (generally the approach that Fassbinder took in his films.) Male heterosexuals have the same problems, I might add, but, generally, idealize female bodies and faces as objects of desire -- Gay men don't feel that desire except abstractly and so they tend to portray women as either Warhol-style "Stars", that is, as commodities, or as unattractive. Ford, as a fashionista, is a master of both types of representation and makes them clash in his films -- the images of women as grossly fat, fleshy, scarred by surgery, contrast with his movie-star representation of Amy Andrews as Susan. (Amy Andrews has perfect breasts and so Ford ends the film by dressing her in a garment that reveals the sides of her breasts, the peep-show technique used in 2013 American Hustle) Susan operates an art gallery and seems to be on the Board of some large art institution -- this gives Ford the opportunity to engage in provocation by showing works of art that some people might deem offensive. (Susan keeps in her office John Curran's notorious "Nude in a Convex Mirror", an image that is distorted to show a female nude model reflected so as to make her ass enormous -- it's an image that's the counterpart to the naked fat women in the first sequence.) With these images, I assume that Ford is making a comment about the exploitation of women, both in art,and in popular cinema -- his film contains disturbing imagery of rape and murderous abuse of an attractive mother and her teenage daughter. Ford seems to be suggesting that we live in a culture that conspicuously trades in offensive images of women -- but he makes this point by simply adding to the number of offensive images that we can see.
Nocturnal Animals consists of three narratives -- they are all thin to the point of vanishing. Ford's approach is to set the narratives side-by-side and allow them to comment on one another. This is thought-provoking and, more or less, succeeds -- the movie is very interesting throughout its 117 minute length and, even, generates a modicum of suspense. Although it is all very "meta-", the contrast between the three stories is sufficiently interesting to keep us engaged. The base-line story involves Susan, an Angeleno art gallery owner, who is fantastically wealthy -- although her finances seem built on sand and, maybe, in danger of collapse. Susan has a spectacularly handsome and dull husband who is some sort of beleaguered investment banker. The husband is cheating on Susan, although discretely. This story is noteworthy primarily because it allows Ford to indulge his interest in expensive accessories, gorgeous interior design, and bitchy high-society chatter. The second story couldn't be more remote from the first -- a man, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, drives cross-country with his wife and teenage daughter. In the desert of West Texas, he encounters a bunch of hoodlums right out of a David Lynch movie. The hoodlums assault him, kidnap his wife and daughter, and, after raping them, murder the two women. Gyllenhaal's character fails to rescue his family, escapes, and makes his way to the highway. Upon reporting the crime, he encounters a Texas cop played by Michael Shannon. With the cop, he plots violent revenge upon the bad guys and, indeed, manages to kill two of them. (The cop is dying of lung cancer, has nothing to lose, and is willing to execute the bad guys since they have evaded he long arm of the law.) In the process of implementing his revenge, Gyllenhaal's character ends up dying. This story allows Ford to devise absolutely gorgeous Texas landscapes, film Gyllenhaal walking aimlessly through the desert (he looks like Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas), and gives Shannon an opportunity to chew up the scenery as the dying cop. The problem with this subplot is that it's not an interesting story -- the Texas plot forms the subject of a novel written by man named Edward Sheffield and mailed to Susan. It's dramatized while we see Susan reading the manuscript. The relationship between Susan and Sheffield is the subject of the third story -- we meet Sheffield (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal, about 20 years earlier. In the flashback,Sheffield encounters Susan in New York City after having a childhood crush on her -- the crush turns out to have been reciprocal. They have a love affair, although Susan's mother (played by Laura Linney) warns her against the relationship, saying that Sheffield is "a weak man." (Linney's character is a wealthy, nasty socialite right out of a Todd Haynes' movie or a fifties film by Douglas Sirk -- a creature of melodrama). Ultimately, Susan's mother is right. Sheffield disappoints Susan and she has an affair with a diabolically handsome man who ends up as her husband in LA. She's pregnant with Sheffield's child and has an abortion. Sheffield turns up in the parking lot of the abortion clinic. Sheffield later writes the novel, Nocturnal Animals (his nickname for the night-owl, Susan) and sends it to his former lover to read. We interpret the violent and lurid action in the novel as being a reflection of Sheffield's rage at being dumped by Susan and the rape/murder scenes in the novel seem to be his revenge on her. (A big painting bearing the word REVENGE is important in compositions in the art world plot in the film's present-day.) In the novel, Sheffield's protagonist is accused of being weak but acts violently and, perhaps, therefore imagines himself to be strong. Sheffield asks Susan to meet him. After hesitating, she goes to a spectacular Japanese restaurant to see him. The film's audience is supposed to interpret the events in the Texas plot as somehow arising from the shattered relationship between Susan and Sheffield -- Sheffield has dedicated the novel to her. (It's pretty narcissistic, however, to think that a work of art is directly caused by a failed relationship -- as Carly Simon sang: "You're so vain you probably think this song is about you." This seems particularly questionable when more than 20 years has elapsed between the relationship and the work of art. What's Sheffield been doing in interim? -- the film would have us believe that he's spent the whole time carrying a romantic torch for Susan.) The glossy surface of the film conceals the fact that none of the three stories is particularly interesting or, even, well thought out. But the film does raise interesting questions, some of them, perhaps, inadvertently -- is the director suggesting that abortion equates to rape and murder? The picture is definitely stylishly made, pictorially beautiful, and, although it's cold as ice, it raises some interesting if shallow questions. But what did Oscar Wilde say about being superficial -- "it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."