Of Style and Substance: Interior Design and Emotion in Nocturnal Animals

The Oscar results are out, and as usual, some truly remarkable movies went critically under-recognized this year. Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals might not have received the recognition it deserved, but it definitely caught our eyes for featuring the most breathtakingly designed sets of 2016. The uber deliberate and sanctimonious design of protagonist Susan Morrow’s home is an emotionally evocative space that coaxes you into her tragic life, and brings the narrative alive.

The transparent house is always shrouded in shadow, countering its transparency.
Dark blues, grays, browns are filtered through a noiresque screen, to portray an indifferent world.

Susan Morrow (played by the delectable Amy Adams) is an art gallery owner who lives in a $100 million dollar Hollywood mansion. Every part of her life is enviably curated, down to her tastefully excruciating stilettos, down to the last tumbler in her house. Our first impression of her, though, is that she is desperately unhappy. Her cavernous concrete mansion is mostly inhabited by her lone, lonely presence, even as she puts up with her handsome, double-faced prick of a husband, the very man she lustily married by cheating on her tame ex-husband with. Her opportunistic past haunts her, infiltrates every curated alcove of her gorgeous house, and even saturates her present. The meticulously chosen artefacts and the glass concrete house are spatial prisons that have trapped her in time. “What right have I to be unhappy? I have everything. I feel ungrateful not to be happy”, she says to her friend, over gourmet cocktails.

Susan in the kitchen with her picture perfect husband.

A Malibu House designed by Scott Mitchell was chosen for its expansive spaces with long corridors and cavernous rooms. The concrete and glass perfection that Susan walks through was stripped of its warm woody tones, and made into something intimidating, cold and hard, almost sterile. More a house, than a home, it is, ironically, the very thing Susan wanted, the very impression of success and beauty and graceful affluence that Susan has always believed in. Production designer Shane Valentino brought in a mixture of modern and contemporary art to speckle the interiors with the calculated charm that someone who cared so much about being surrounded by beautiful things would want to inhabit. And so it is ironic, and tragic when Susan finds herself confessing casually that she “doesn’t really care about all this art.”

A piece from Richard Misrach’s Desert Cantos Series in the Entryway

As it turns out, Susan is slowly selling this art to make up for her husband’s failing business. The stark transparency of the glass house is a brave facade. The art, the money, the beautiful house that was to restore her sense of balance and achievement when she brutally left her loving ex-husband by secretly aborting his child is just a detached expression of success, an empty emulation that did not match up to her intention to happiness. And it is the price that she paid for this life that leaves her trapped in it. The cold, calculated architecture hints at an alienation. The restrained and refined minimalism in the house serves to hide all this. The look created by Valentino, under Ford’s scrupulous direction sometimes features pieces from Ford’s own house, even as Ford himself identified with Susan Morrow. The severe minimalism in her art gallery border on ultramodern apocalyptic. A world where everything is so perfect, it lacks humanity.

Susan saunters through her art gallery in a detached haze.
The sterile, ultra-modern gallery

Director Tom Ford, who is also a world-famous luxury fashion designer, belongs to that clan of contemporary filmmakers, like Joe Wright, who obstinately keep the audience’s aesthetic pleasure a pressing priority. But with Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford takes the culture of beauty and the human aspiration to be surrounded by material beauty to a whole other level. The seductive Hollywood mansion that Susan lives in is at once creepy, and its picture perfect, high contrast gorgeous dark furnishings and upholstery are dramatic in their indifference. It is a beautiful prison. The life she lives might be beautiful, but her life choices have left her in an ugly place.

Susan, trapped in her concrete glass mansion.

In her desperation to escape, Susan loses herself in the book that her ex-husband sends her. The world in the book is the exact opposite of the cool, sleek, indifferent world that she lives in. Violent, vengeful and raw, it is vibrant, and fecund. And it is this world that seems more real to Susan.

The world in the book.