how 'nocturnal animals' explores the absurdity of the art world

From minimalist mansions to lavender weddings and morally-conflicted gallerists, Tom Ford's new thriller is a wonderfully sinister portrait of the contemporary art world.

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Nov 17 2016, 3:20pm

Never get a job in the art world, and never marry, seriously date, or divorce a writer (in both cases, these are instances of "do as I say, and not as I do" — and, in both instances, if it's the case that my employer or my current partner is reading this: just kidding!) Both will end up being a pain in the heart or the ass, either now and then or consistently. It's a law of nature. In Nocturnal Animals, Amy Adams's Susan learns both of these lessons the hard way: first by hating her work, and then by reading her ex-husband's Tony's weird, seedy manuscript. As far as typical days go in creative life, this isn't so egregious a stretch.

The founder of a Hauser-Zwirner-Gagosian-style mega-gallery whose new show is a video-installation of dancing obese women, naked except for the hats and boots of majorette costumes, Susan is forced to consider the choices which led her to this point; there are sculptures, too, of the same nude women — huge and realistic and sprawled, each like a Ron Mueck cast of a Beryl cartoon — and the crowd is practically spilling champagne on them. It is possible to imagine these works in a gallery. It's also feasible that she believes that the work is embarrassing. It kind of is. Here's another comparison: try to imagine a world in which Philip-Lorca diCorcia photographed the overweight strippers from Trash Humpers, and not the real girls from Jumbo's Clown Room. Imagine a Dove ad by David Lynch. Do you see what I mean? The picture's not pretty — conceptually or, really, morally. Are we meant to think it's pretentious? Or mean? Or are we meant to laugh at the art world's own inherent big, bad, mean pretension?

The art is perfect, she says to her friend's gay husband, for a world that's filled with junk. (If you have attended a number of high-end-gallery and high-fashion parties and believe you have not yet met a gay man with a wife, then I'm sad to announce that you're wrong, and your gaydar is broken.) Tom Ford, at his most Tom Ford, decided to costume the male half of this particular lavender marriage in lavender; he is played, for about ten glorious minutes, by Michael Sheen, and is — along with his straight, zonked, kaftan-wearing wife — the character you wish the film were about. "Nobody," he tells our heroine, "actually likes what they do for a living." Watching Susan shuffle miserably around her chilly, enormous manse and gripe at her Trump-tanned philandering husband, you can't help but buy it, since nothing has ever looked less like life or living than this. When her ex-husband Tony's novel arrives in the mail, she seems almost relieved to be terrified by it. The book is a thriller in which she and her daughter are slaughtered by hillbilly monsters while driving to Marfa. It beats Basel.

Susan — a typical art type — draws her make-up on like furious war paint, as if she is starring in a Kabuki show. Her hairstyle has been described by reviewers as "straightened," "angular," "immaculate," "lacquered," "severe," "side-swept," and "distractingly gorgeous," which basically just means "cut like a curator's." She's a fan of foundation that makes her look deader even than her character in her ex-husband's creepy novel. She seems to own several roll-neck sweaters, maybe because Ford isn't afraid of a cliché — to whit, from Anthony Lane in The New Yorker: "[Amy wears] a pair of glasses slightly larger than welder's goggles." Nobody could dare say this portrayal wasn't accurate. The funniest art-world gag is a sad Jeff Koons balloon dog, flanked by an equally miserable crane in the grounds of their Modernist mansion, implying: what the fuck is all of this for, anyway? Seeing this huge, unwieldy, kooky, hyper-polished object standing in the rain is like looking at Susan's life from a distance: all grim flash, no actual purpose. The second funniest is the moment where a gallery assistant played by Jena Malone — because there is, in every art-house movie whose 'art' is written in boldface, always a character played by Jena Malone — has her iPhone smashed to pieces, and listlessly drawls: "it's fine. The new one's out next week, anyway." I would not be surprised if a gallerist said the same thing of an artist whose sales had turned equally listless. "We can just throw up a few things by some new LA artist," Susan tells her husband disinterestedly, knowing he is fucking somebody else, "and people will think we're ahead of the trend instead of broke."

It's a rough ride down from the top ten of the Art Review Power List — even rougher than roadside rednecks. And, speaking of rednecks: Ford unwittingly offers up another neat art-world archetype in the form of Aaron Taylor-Johnson's killer-rapist, Ray, whose status as a hick is undermined by his perfect 70s shirt, his model cheekbones, and his conspicuously flashy green boots (is that Prada Marfa 'boutique' so beloved by the web now actually trading, I wonder?). "[Tom Ford] straightened my hair himself!" the actor rather sweetly told us. "He did that himself!" The effect is less that The Hills Have Eyes, and more that the Holsten Pils is on ice at Bold Tendencies. Few in the art world are actually married to people who look like Armie Hammer, a man so tediously perfect he's forgettable: he may as well be a Faberge egg with "handsome man" inscribed on it. There are, though, a fair few Rays in the offing. Usually, you will find them near the complimentary bar. If the violence, the Southern drawl, and the road-rage aren't applicable, the entitlement is more or less the same.

"Ford makes many of [Nocturnal Animals'] fancy trappings — Susan's gorgeously tailored coat and luxe boots, her big, fashionably minimalist glass-box house, or the curvaceous John Currin nude that hangs above her desk — look really nice, like things a person ostensibly might want to own," writes a faintly conflicted reviewer at TIME. "Does Ford hate these things or love them?" At one point, we see a painting in the gallery that says REVENGE in large, white type over black. If we are told the artist's name, I didn't catch it; but it almost doesn't matter, so slick is the piece. It could say anything, or have been made by anybody at all. The style of the Tom Ford Woman is, typically, more Ziegfield than Zwirner — there is something, though, of the dominatrix in the gallerist, which is perhaps why she's often in war paint.

Susan is colloquially a stone-cold bitch, which is how she's got everything done, and also why she has an ex-husband in the first place. No matter: some brittleness is as much a part of the uniform as the requisite turtleneck, angular hairstyle, and the "pair of glasses slightly larger than welder's goggles." "I wanted to set the story in the contemporary [art] world," the director told the assembled press at the Venice Biennale, "and I wanted to emphasize its absurdity." God, as they might say in Ford's native Texas, helps those of us who help ourselves. In art, one helps oneself to absurdity daily: if only we had Tom Ford to straighten our hair for us.

Credits


Text Philippa Snow