Savage Grace (2008)
Directed by Tom Kalin
Written by Howard A. Rodman
Based on the non-fiction book Savage Grace by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson
Starring: Julianne Moore, Stephen Dillane, Eddie Redmayne, Elena Anaya, Simon Andreu, Hugh Dancy
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 97 minutes
Savage Grace is less a movie than a fashion spread. Its most salient feature is a slickly realized mise-en-scéne recreating the lifestyle—the outfits, destinations and social tics—of the jet-setting rich and famous from 1946 to 1972. From the gorgeous costumes worn by an equally gorgeous Julianne Moore, to the lush locations—Paris, Majorca and Cadaques—the movie is like a Vanity Fair article; it’s eye candy, with a splash of psychological intrigue in the form of a creepy dysfunctional family drama thrown in to give it added value. This is no subtle work of cinema. It’s the kind of movie that leaves you feeling empty, even slightly ashamed that you just spent two hours engaging in the baser pleasures of life—gawking at how the privileged live, and then watching them self-destruct. It’s actually quite similar to the effect of reading a Vanity Fair magazine; afterwards, you wonder if it’s really any more than a glossy version of People.
Why this movie is so dissatisfying should not be blamed on the torridness of its subject matter. On the contrary, the lurid tale of incest and murder among the heirs of the Bakelite plastics fortune would seem ripe for a shamelessly good old-fashioned melodrama. The characters are a psychopathologist’s dream. The wife, Barbara Baekeland, played by Julianne Moore, is a beautiful, narcissistic, libidinous, and occasionally hysterical woman who marries above her social class and spends the rest of her life trying to gain acceptance into elite social circles. Her husband, Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane), the heir to his grandfather’s immense fortune, lives with the constant humiliation of being unable to live up to the achievements of his grandfather, and whose disdain of what he considers his wife’s petty need for approval only fuels his sense of unfulfilled destiny. The marriage is a wreck from the start, and their one offspring, a boy named Tony, bears the brunt of its morbidity.
Largely ignored by his father, Tony becomes his mother’s special consort, and Barbara lavishes him with the kind of love and attention that seems born of selfish need rather than maternal instinct. Barbara’s constant need for attention, and later her irrational belief that she needs to “cure” him of his homosexual proclivities, take their toll on a boy who seems frail and overly sensitive from the start, and Tony succumbs to his mother’s manipulation, even to the point of serving as her surrogate husband, in every sense of the word.
Julianne Moore is a brave and talented actress, but her characterization of Barbara Baekeland feels too mannered, and even when she lets loose, it seems calculated, a bit too tidy. We can certainly fault director Tony Kalin’s overly tight direction and screenwriter Howard A. Rodman’s extremely arch dialogue for Miss Moore’s by-the-books performance. Mr. Kalin also seemed to have an unfortunate aversion to letting Miss Moore look ugly, or undignified. The scene where Barbara struts to the airport to confront her husband, who has just left her for a younger woman, seems more like a fashion show cat walk than one last humiliating public display of her own vulgar temper before succumbing to the social ignominy of being an abandoned wife. Miss Moore acts way too gracious, too composed, as Barbara, a woman whose behavior was more likely that of a fiery, tactless, somewhat gauche wannabe than the stately blueblood that Miss Moore portrays. After an episode of consolation sex with her walker friend Seth (Hugh Dancy), Barbara wakes up to see her son Tony has just joined them in bed. The way Miss Moore reacts to Tony’s stealthy appearance reminds us of a gracious hostess who has just welcomed another guest into her boudoir; after her raucous laugh that sounds more coquettish than morally defunct, the three of them bring a relaxed cadence to the act of triangular sex. They look almost wholesome in bed together—a ménage the idle rich might indulge in quite often, their own form of daily constitutional.
The fact that Barbara is a sick woman, and Tony the damaged result of her sick mothering, doesn’t really come through the glamorous ornamentation of Kalin’s direction. The actors pose in their haute couture, spouting dialogue that is just as stylized, and we don’t get a sense of what really is going on underneath these decorative exteriors. Only the film’s end gives us a clue just how screwed up this mother-son relationship really was, in a sex scene that is as raw and disturbing as it is enlightening.
Unfortunately, such a powerful scene is too little too late, and the murder scene that follows feels tacked on. We are never prepared for the kind of mental instability that could lead Tony to violence, just as we weren’t quite prepared for Barbara’s induction of Tony as her lover. The dysfunctional impulses behind their psychosexual relationship are never really examined; they are only suggested, in that way the fey rich do so well, with dialogue full of innuendo that skirts real substance. If Mr. Kalin was aiming for the same detached objectivity that allowed an exploration of human depravity that he delivered in his first feature, Swoon, it doesn’t work here. What we’re left with is a cartoon.