By Teo Dunaljo

Nocturnal Animals, the riveting thriller by fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford is a reminder not only of the mirrored relationship between life and art but also a superb cinematographic example of the emotional investment we make when reading a book

I don’t know how it works for most people, but I am one of those who subscribe to the idea that the films I want to watch depend more on the actors in them than almost anything else, including its director.  I just put faith in the fact that most good actors won’t be committing artistic suicide by choosing to star in dreadfully overproduced, ludicrous tosh with inane dialogues and plot lines designed to entertain unsophisticated twenty-somethings from the English-speaking world.  

That is why the first time it came out, late in 2016, I immediately went to see Nocturnal Animals, a film with Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams in it. The fact that it had been directed by fashion designer-now-cinematographer Tom Ford helped a bit because I had enjoyed his stylish but slightly unsubstantial A Single Man with the ever so charming pair of Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. However, Nocturnal Animals promised to be a different kettle of fish with its tag “dark thriller of love and revenge” and it didn’t disappoint.  

Nabokov one said he didn’t write for readers who wanted to recognise themselves in his characters

Critic after critic have spoken of the mirror like quality between life and art in this film, and even the presence of real pieces of contemporary art like Saint Sebastian Exquisite Pain by Damian Hirst or Balloon Dog by Jeff Koons -which appears at the beginning of the film by the pool in the spectacular modernist palace of Susan Marrow (Amy Adams)- validates this idea. Susan is a successful L.A. gallery owner who was “too cynical to be an artist” and instead became a disillusioned art merchant. On a Friday morning, after the opening of her last, and deliberately grotesque, video installation at her gallery, her unfaithful husband -who failed to attend the previous night opening- informs her he has to leave for an important business trip to New York to try to save their failing art business. Susan decides to spend the weekend alone at home. That morning her male assistant brings her a package left in the mailbox. She suffers a paper cut when trying to open it and asks her assistant to do it instead. It is the manuscript of the soon to be published last novel by Susan’s first husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Edward has dedicated the book to her. Now, undisturbed and with a free weekend ahead of her, she starts reading it.

What follows is a double-stranded narrative of Susan going through the manuscript and stirring memories from the past that ripple through the inner turmoil of her current loveless life. The late Australian critic Clive James once said that when people talk of different levels of reality, it is often forgotten that one of those levels corresponds to the actual reality, i.e. the real reality, one might add tautologically. But what this double and simultaneous narrative of the film helps to do, quite evidently, is to show the mental imagery and emotional investment we always create and make when reading a book. Susan imagines the main character of the novel, Tony, as her ex husband Edward; and a woman very much like herself as Laura, Tony’s wife in the book. Even the fictional couple’s daughter, Helen, is almost a replica of the real daughter she had with her second husband but decided not to have with Edward.  It could be argued that the film itself is the representation of a woman reading a book.

The novel her ex husband has written is a dark tale of violence and revenge, very different to the kind of books he was trying to write when married to Susan. A revenge that the fictional narrative of the novel somewhat exerts over the present or, depending on your own reading of the film, Edward’s own revenge against the memory of his past with Susan. The film sequences between Susan reading the manuscript and the her real life events are nicely presented as a mirrored image of life imitating art or vice versa, if you prefer.  

What Tom Ford has produced is a little gem of contrasting landscapes: the ample palatial and cold pulchritude of Susan’s house juxtaposed to the arid, desolated and deadly terrain of West Texas; the hard surfaces and colours of Susan present with the soft palettes and textures of her past with Edward. Even seeing Amy Adams close up in various scenes with no make-up on is a way of softening her character for us and returning her to a happier, more loving but also more precarious time when she was married to a struggling writer.

Nabokov one said he didn’t write for readers who wanted to recognise themselves in his characters. But he said it after publishing Lolita, quite possibly as a much-needed “explanation” for the subject matter of his most famous novel. The case is that it is virtually impossible to detach completely our emotions, prejudices and even beliefs when reading -and rereading- those books which become important to us. Our intellectual and artistic judgements are coloured and framed by our desires, emotions and past experiences. To pretend otherwise is merely a naïve reading of how things really are.

Teo Dunaljo is a Birmingham-based critic, writer and a regular contributor of Perro Negro. He is also the author of a book of short stories entitled Deja que la luna no salga.