Savage Grace (2007)

TOM KALIN

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5

Spain/USA/France, 2007.   Celluloid Dreams, Montfort Producciones, Killer Films, John Wells Productions, ATO Pictures, 120dB Films, A Contraluz Films, Videntia Frames, Ministerio de Cultura, Instituto de Crédito Oficial, Generalitat de Catalunya – Institut Català de les Indústries Culturals, ICF Institut Català de Finances, Televisió de Catalunya.   Screenplay by , based on the book by , .  Cinematography by .  Produced by , , , .   Music by .   Production Design by .   Costume Design by .   Film Editing by , , .   Independent Spirit Awards 2008.  

It’s usually Isabelle Huppert who makes you realize you complain too much about your mother, but here Julianne Moore trumps them all in the true-life story of Barbara Baekeland, once a Hollywood starlet (as Barbara Daly) who married wealthy Brooks Baekeland (), heir to the Bakelite fortune, and raised their son in various idyllic centres of aristocratic life.  Teenage Tony Baekeland (Eddie Redmayne) is miserable and lonely, depressed by his parents’ stormy marriage, their eventual break-up and the reliance his mother comes to have on him for whatever spots of courage or pleasure she manages to muster up in order to deal with daily life.  The actual story is that Barbara apparently began her incestuous affair with her son when she noticed that he was showing signs of homosexuality and was hoping to cure him (cause that always works).  In the film they enjoy an uncomfortable closeness and the explicit reveal is saved until just before he commits the crime for which the family became known (and which prompted the story to be told in the first place).  Poetic licence is one thing, but as with many aspects of this film, the structure reveals director Tom Kalin’s understandable but unsupportable prudishness in the telling of this story of corruption and misery among the wealthy.  What these people get up to in their private lives is downright unpleasant (including a ménage a trois that sparks up between Moore, Redmayne and  as lover to both), but what is behind this tale is the story of a very unhappy woman who is terrified of the life that stretches before her when her husband leaves her for a much younger woman.  It is possible that she reaches for the unwholesome connection to her son because she is looking for her lost youth, or maybe it is the expression of a woman who wants her son to grow up normal and avoid her disappointments, a common fear of mothers of gay children taken to its most perverse extreme.  At the same time it is the tale of a young man who is taken for granted and taken advantage of by everyone he comes across, his peripatetic upbringing only further enhancing a life without foundation or security that can be easily seen as the reason (though not the justification) for where he ended up.  Kalin has not thought these things through, instead judging his characters harshly and remaining distant from their experiences without justification:  if you’re not willing to get inside these peoples’ heads, you’re not allowed to tell their story.  Had it been told with a sense of trashy glee, this would make up for it, but the half-hearted attempt at investigative drama fizzles.  This is particularly disappointing given that Moore, who is stunning on all counts, is an actress we can count on to go the extra mile in exploring even the most complicated of women, and Redmayne shows a thorough willingness to be the ultimate loser in whatever game of power being played in front of or upon him.

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