Director/fashion world superstar Tom Ford’s film Nocturnal Animals‘ is essentially a polished indictment of polish, but it often seems too enamored with its exquisite mode of visual storytelling — and too inattentive to character nuance — to not feel aligned with the vapid industry it appears to critique.
Nocturnal Animals is a film split into two worlds: a reenacted version of a work of brutal fiction within the film, and the “real” world of the person reading that work of fiction. The “reality” half of the movie follows Amy Adams’ character, Susan, as she confronts the memories of a relationship gone awry after receiving a Cormac McCarthy-esque desert horror novel, by her ex-husband (Edward, played by Jake Gyllenhaal), dedicated to her. In it, Edward casts himself as the husband/father seeking vengeance for horrific acts done against his wife and daughter. In the “reality” section, Susan is susceptible to the power of the book/call of her ex; she’s scared, her guilt and interest and romantic side all piqued — because we’re led to believe in these characters as dichotomized archetypes. When they were together, Edward was the impetuous, inspiring writer; Susan was the pragmatic connoisseur with an entrepreneurial bent, who’s now fallen so deeply into that side of herself that she has no access to human warmth, or something along the lines of that archetypal template. She ended their relationship because Edward couldn’t ensure financial stability.
The whole point of the “reality” section seems to be to depict Susan’s existence as one of surfaces and voids, to imply (or really, to scream) what her resurgence of interest in her ex’s hot blooded artistry is all about. Ford’s film is based on Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, but in the book, the protagonist is a stay-at-home mom; Ford changed the nature of this character played by Adams apparently to reflect some of questions he has about his own existence as a high society aesthete. For, in the film, Susan is gallerist at a huge, corporatized gallery.
In order to depict the superficiality of her existence as a member of the Los Angeles art world elite, Ford takes a visually satiric approach to the stereotypes of that world. The film does have some kitschy humor therein: Jenna Malone gives an amazing one-scene-long performance as another gallerist who brags about the surveillance camera over her baby’s bed so she can keep an eye on the nanny she “hates.” The footage of her baby sleeping looks like Paranormal Activity. In another scene, where Susan is in a meeting in what looks like an art-world spaceship, the camera suddenly cuts to a close-up of a face with a pair of recently filled lips:”Did you get a new doctor?” asks Adams. “Haircut,” say the lips. The opening credits of the film feature a surreal depiction of a performance art piece that sees naked, obese women dancing with American flags, a piece Adams later refers to as “junk.” And then there’s Susan’s friend, who dresses like this:
A scene featuring John Currin’s Nude in a Convex Mirror, a painting of a traditional, tasteful nude whose butt just so happens to be blown to massive proportions, plunging out at the viewer as though it were a monster in a pandering 3D movie — offers up the comic/satiric potential the film could have had if it’d also simultaneously gone deeper.
But elsewhere in the film, Ford characterizes the world he’s critiquing through expensive, famous contemporary art world signifiers, specifically works by two mega-star artists who represent its mainstream. And as much as the film may satirically prod this art, it also seems to love and relish its emptiness, and becomes too unable to offer much beyond vacant, scary beauty. How can it then do anything but perpetuate the vacancies these two artworks engender?
Perhaps hearing the words “vapid” “mega-star certain artists” and “expensive signifiers,” you’ve already guessed that the two works in question are made by Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. A silver version of one of Koons’ infinite supply of balloon doggies makes an appearance towards the beginning of the film, right around the time Susan laments the junkifying of her industry and the exhibits she puts on. The doggie shows up in a shot of the exterior of her house, looking sad, and surrounded by a thick fog, standing next to a wobbly crane. Later in the film, as she wanders around a chillingly austere museum space, she gazes at Damien Hirst’s Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain.
It should be mentioned that both of these works are of simulacral animals: the Hirst, a stuffed cow, prodded by arrows, immersed in a formaldehyde tank; the Koons, a giant metal balloon animal, a simulacral rendering of a simulacral rendering. Similarly, Adams’ character’s world is depicted with such pretty coldness to suggest that she barely even feels human, let alone animal, anymore; by contrast, the desert vengeance story of the book she’s been given is all animalism — with its sexualized violence, its desperation-inducing climate, its setting even outside of modernity (part of the family’s predicament in the “story” part of the film is that they can’t get cell reception in the wilds of West Texas).
But while it may in many moments seem like Ford is trying to dig his teeth into the art world — not that those teeth would be particularly piercing, as no amount of bite marks from critics can ever seem to puncture the inflated commercial success of Koons’ mega-kitsch or Hirst’s creepy decorative nothings — his own work happens to bear many similarities to that of Koons and Hirst. It may come as a surprise after seeing the film, but Ford also seems to really, genuinely, like both of them.
Despite the usage of a Koons in a portrait of a world evacuated of purpose beyond capital gain, in 2009, Ford did an episode of Iconoclasts about Koons, saying he’s one of his favorite artists. “In a certain way, he’s the contemporary artist,” Ford said. “There’s a chaotic quality, but very slick, surface-y, very designed.” In Vox, speaking of his decision to use the Hirst, he said that the pieces in the film are “works that really speak to [him].” If these two artists’ works comment on the vacancy of commodified images, it is only in epitomizing it through stoic ostentation.
Ford’s lipstick-caked vision of despair within the capitalist art-world thus similarly seems prone to a type of self-reflexivity that undermines it: his over-aestheticization isn’t paired with characters rich enough to suggest a vision beyond aesthetics. For, take away the exquisite camera work, the costuming, the adoration of certain shades of lipstick, and the film’s textual commentary on the art world is built fundamentally on archetypes.
Plastic surgery! Nanny cams! Empty art! All of this is shot with impressive comic timing — and an odd sense of admiration and fixation — but not exactly the most trenchant commentary. Ford’s/Ford’s character’s fatigue of this world of polished surfaces is one that’s somewhat questionable, given that the film itself is nothing but polished surfaces. In a profile on Ford in The Hollywood Reporter, Gyllenhaal said that he was initially worried that Ford would “focus on the aesthetic over the heart of the story.” He then continued, “But he was so different than I expected. He had thousands of research photographs. He had a palette for each character. Everything was packed with thought and detail.”… none of which sounds all that different than a “focus on aesthetic” over heart. The film is exquisitely detailed when it comes to imagistic storytelling, and a beguiling watch because of it. But much like the critical questions perpetually surrounding the works of Hirst and Koons, it’s hard to see what the film equivalent of a shiny balloon animal has to say about the nature of shiny balloon animals.