May 27, 2008

On Savage Grace

Sizzling hot, swimming in high falutin’ European locales and barely articulating thriller beats that intrigue and puzzle without doing much thrilling, I can’t quite shake Tom Kalin’s bizarro feature Savage Grace. His first in 15 years, the long awaited follow up to his 1992 New Queer Cinema opening salvo Swoon, Savage Grace stays with you and is nothing if not unsettling (and watchable), but that doesn’t mean it's any good.

The entire endeavor is oddly flat, with emotionally unreachable characters and lots of pretty colors and background vistas – it comes across as a bit of a travelogue that must end very badly. Kalin manages to portray a world of decadent, unlikable, cultured people writhing, even in their wealth, with status anxiety and, not surprisingly, overcome by sexual dysfunction, without attempting either to have us understand their malaise or to particularly give a fuck. What I really wanted to do was run from these people – all of them.

Like his earlier film, Kalin has taken a lurid true crime tale as his inspiration, in this case the murder of Barbara Baekeland, a high strung, social climbing, ex-actress (read: monster) who married the bakelite plastics heir Brooks (Stephen Dillane, strong as always), sired him a son, fucked both (literally and metaphorically) and was off’d by the latter with a particularly large kitchen knife following her most brazenly incestuous act. This is dark stuff, but without suggesting much of the inner lives of the troubled Baekeland’s during the decade and a half we follow them as they trot across Europe tearing each other apart slowly and deliberately, the film leaves us in the dark about just how Barbara Baekeland got to the point where she thought it was okay to ride her homosexual son’s penis on the living room couch.

For a film that hinges on this action (it is, as it were, the last straw), Kalin and his screenwriter Howard Rodman seem oddly timid in attempting to unearth the mysteries of Barbara Baekeland – it is her son’s movie after all, his prison bound letter to his estranged father providing the framework for the film’s narrative, but Antony ends up getting the short shrift too. As portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, who is making a career of playing the tortured son of powerful men and neurotic women (see Robert DeNiro’s vastly underrated The Good Shepard or Justin Chadwick's clunky The Other Boleyn Girl), Tony, despite the voiceover he’s given and the way he’s prioritized in the editing, remains an enigma, and not a particularly engrossing one.

Despite the so-called build up (Dad runs off with son’s first attempt at a girlfriend, Mom gets it on with his cute English boyfriend, in the same bed), by the time Barbara is mounting Antony on their sofa, little tension or narrative drive is evident. Of course, no filmmaker (or psychoanalyst) could ever be comfortably certain of what made these folks tic, but we’d expect one with the skill Kalin clearly has (a shame he hasn’t gotten to make more features) to give us a bit more in terms of nuanced characterization.

Instead he steers the normally solid Jullianne Moore, Dillane and Redmayne toward oblique vindictiveness, melancholia and WASPy unaffectedness without giving us hints into their psychology that, given the severity of the subject matter and his fairly standard narrative approach to the material, would have helped make this a more satisfying experience. I wanted the film to engage me in a way that would lend it some tragic ethos or some clear human thread, but the three central players, as portrayed by a talented if misguided cast, are not worth our time, pity or contemplation.