Savage Grace

Cannes Film Fest 2007–It's a mystery why it has taken 15 years for the gifted filmmaker Tom Kalin, who made a splashy screen debut in 1992 with “Swoon,” to direct his second picture, “Savage Grace.” Like the first film, a stylish, gay-tinged meditation on the real-life killers Leopold and Lowe, “Savage Grace” draws on an actual crime, a scandalous murder that involved incest and madness.

At its world premiere, at Cannes Festival's Directors' Fortnight, “Savage Grace” divided critics and developed a negtaive word of mouth, and the same reaction might recur when the rather problematic film plays at the 2008 Sundance Fest, in the Premiere section.

Based on the book by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson, adapted to the screen by Howard Rodman, “Savage Grace” tells a stranger-than-fiction saga. The gifted Julianne Moore plays Barbara Daly, a former actress who marries way above her class to become the wife of Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane), heir to a plastic fortune.

Savoring the good life, the New York couple is globetrotting to Paris, London, Cadaques, and other exotic places that “facilitate” their excursion into various forms of dysfunctionality. Though alluring, the social climber Barbara becomes an embarrassment to her snobbish, well-bred hubby. The birth of their first (and only) child Tony pushes the already rocky marriage into a disaster. When Brooks realizes that Tony is homosexual, he has nothing but contempt for him. Scorned by her husband, Barbara does everything within her power to protect her son, even if it means murder, and the tale builds up to a shockingly horrifying climax.

A poseur, Barbara is desperate to shake off her class origins, aspiring to be accepted into the upper echelons at all costs, showing Tony as a natural scion. She overdoes it, and her schemes only make her husband Brooks more aware of the great divide and of her unnatural bond with Tony, who's burdened by two vastly insecure and unstable parents, albeit for different reasons.

Indeed, Barbara's marital unhappiness and pathetic neediness for love result in an unhealthy relationship with Tony (played as a child by Barney Clark), which is shaped and even helped by their frequent moves around various European locales.

Barbara's smothering affections leave Tony ill-equipped to deal with his life, specifically his emerging sexuality. Tony's attempt at a relationship with an attractive Spanish girl, Blanca (Elena Anaya), who's also a social climber, ends when Brooks beds her and eventually marries her.

All along, Tony feels abandoned by his father, while his mother continues to suffocate him. When Simon (Hugh Dancy), a handsome bisexual art dealer, appears in Ibiza, all three (Barbara, Tony, and Simon) jump into bed together. Tony is later seduced by a beach acquaintance, Jake (Unax Ugalde). Torn between a need to escape his mother's suffocating clutches and acute awareness of her emotional dependence on him, Tony descends into madness.

In the hands of another filmmaker, the tale could have easily escalated into sensationalism since it contains decadence, incest, and insanity. However, Kalin and his writer avoid this temptation, and also steer clear of melodrama for melodrama's sake. It's to Kalin's credit that, despite major flaws, all the characters remain human and grounded.

In its good moments, “Savage Grace” offers glimpses into the lives of the rich and spoiled–the closest we have to American aristocracy, the heirs of the Bakelite plastics fortune, and class barriers, issues whose effects are seldom acknowledged because they run contrary to the American Dream of upward mobility and romantic love.

Kalin and writer Rodman have pared down the multitude of details offered in Robins and Aronson's book. However, spanning a generation (from 1946 to 1972), Rodman's screenplay is too episodic, resulting in an uneven, overly fractured tale that's further burdened by stiff and expository dialogue.

In the book “Savage Grace,” the first-person narration is more intense and compelling. But in the movie, it comes across as a structural device that's not particularly illuminating. At one point, Antony (Tony) Baekeland says, “I was the steam when hot meets cold.” Overall, the filmmakers fictionalize some of the letters written by the protags to each other and by other commentators, such as Brooks' own father, who records: “One of the uses of money is that it allows us not to live with the consequences of our mistakes.”

Rising above the writing, Julianne Moore, already one of the most fearlessly bold actresses around (who appeared in more Killer productions than any other actor), handles well the various facets of her challenging role, particularly the audacious scene in which Barbara puts her hand on Tony's crotch and caresses it, which is a reflection of her growingly annoying neediness rather than sexual act.

Though spanning over two decades, Moore more or less looks the same, and knowing how careful Kalin and his producers are, I'm led to believe that it was intentional. (At this point, Julianne Moore has become our expert in playing “American housewives,” having made “The Hours,” “Safe,” Far from Heaven,” and others).

Of all the men, Eddie Redmayne, who plays the mature Tony, has the toughest role, because it's full of contradictory tendencies, and a more experienced actor might have registered more effectively. As her husband, Stephen Dillane is also good, capturing the insecurities of an American aristocrat.

Technically, unlike “Swoon,” which was one of a piece, “Savage Grace” mixes styles, experimenting with video, super-8, 16mm, and other media.

Cast

Barbara Baekeland – Julianne Moore
Brooks Baekeland – Stephen Dillane
Antony Baekeland – Eddie Redmayne
Blanca – Elena Anaya

Credits

A Monfort Producciones (Spain)/Killer Films (U.S.)/Celluloid Dreams (France) production, in association with ATO Pictures, 120 dB Films, A Contraluz Films, Videntia Frames.
Produced by Iker Monfort, Katie Roumel, Pamela Koffler, Christine Vachon.
Executive producers, John Wells, Temple Fennell, Johnathan Dorfman, Hengameh Panahi, Stephen Hays, Peter M. Graham II, Howard Morales.
Co-executive producers, Elvira Morales, Christian Baute.
Co-producers, Alberto Aranda, Xavi Granada, Yulene Monfort, Tom Kalin.
Directed by Tom Kalin.
Screenplay by Howard A. Rodman, based on the book by Natalie Robins, Steven M.L. Aronson.
Camera (color), Juanmi Azpiroz.
Editors, Kalin, John F. Lyons, Enara Goikoetxea.
Music: Fernando Velazquez.
Production designer: Victor Molero.
Art director: Deborah Chambers.
Costume designer: Gabriela Salaverri.
Sound: Juan Borrell, Bela da Costa, Jaime Fernandez.

Running time: 97 Minutes.