Phil on Film Index
Sunday, August 03, 2008
Review - Savage Grace
Watching Julianne Moore in Savage Grace is a depressing experience. This is not because she gives a bad performance – quite the opposite – but because her brave, unflinching turn is on display in a film that's completely unworthy of it. Moore has pretty much cornered the market in terms of tortured, post-war American wives, and in Savage Grace she plays real-life socialite Barbara Baekeland. The film opens in 1946, with Barbara and her wealthy husband Brooks (Stephen Dillane) enjoying a night out, but perhaps "enjoying" isn't the right word, as the pair snipe incessantly at each other over dinner to the quiet embarrassment of their aristocratic friends. They leave separately, with Barbara hailing down a car and impetuously deciding to spend the rest of the evening with the young men inside, an act of revenge for Brooks' earlier comment that he would sleep with another woman for a million dollars. The tension and simmering spite between the couple is palpable, and this is the environment into which Anthony Baekeland (played as an adult by Eddie Redmayne) was born.
Anthony was an infant when the above episode took place, and his narration guides us through the story as Savage Grace details five significant episodes in the lives of Barbara and her son, with their increasingly close relationship developing into an incestuous and ultimately fatal one. But for all of the turbulent emotions swirling around this story, I never felt a thing during Savage Grace, aside from irritation, boredom and an increasing sense that I was completely wasting my time on this empty freak show. The film has been directed by Tom Kalin, whose only previous feature was another true-life tale of murder, 1992's Swoon. He shoots Savage Grace in a glossy style which has a weirdly sterile quality to it, and throughout the picture he maintains something of a hands-off approach to this story, as if he is as repelled by these characters as we are. Everything about the film feels hollow, the characters are never fleshed out and they don't appear to alter in any way across the film's near 30-year span. We are mere observers – voyeurs, actually – as Kalin plods through the various sexual shenanigans that make up the Baekelands' home life.
The utter vacuity of Savage Grace is surprising, because one would have thought any halfway competent filmmaker could have spun something interesting out of this tale, even if it were just interesting in terms of its salacious sensationalism. The Baekelands' sexual entanglements are certainly intriguing, after all. The film suggests that Barbara's, shall we say, overeager interest in this area of Anthony's life began as a fear that her son was gay, and that her later incestuous encounters with him were part of her attempt to "cure" him of this homosexuality. During the "Cadaqués, 1967" sequence, Barbara and Brooks can be seen encouraging him to go to bed with a local girl (the talented Elena Anaya, in a nothing part), but she later hooks up with Brooks instead. Anthony goes back to men, while Barbara lives alone with her gay companion, before these three all end up in bed together (!), and finally the film leaves us alone with Barbara showing Anthony a little too much motherly love. Phew! With so much bed-hopping going you'd have thought Savage Grace would have generated a little bit of heat, but the sex in the film is dealt with in the same clinical manner as everything else. "Are you in?" Barbara asks Anthony as she straddles him, later enquiring "Did you come?" in the same flat, emotionless manner.
Quite why Kalin has forced his actors to speak in this affected, stylised manner is beyond me. He seems determined to leach any instances of emotion out of his film, to turn his characters into opaque puppets, although he doesn't have to work very hard where Eddie Redmayne is concerned. The wan-looking actor, last seen as Matt Damon's son in The Good Shepherd, is about as underwhelming a leading man as you could imagine, and he fits all too comfortably into Kalin's milieu. Thankfully, Moore manages to elude the director's deathly touch for long enough to give a fearless, intermittently powerful performance as Barbara. Alternately monstrous, brittle and pathetic, Moore is a magnetic figure, and the best scenes in Savage Grace are hers rather than the film's as a whole. Watch how she reaches breaking point while forcing young Anthony to read a passage from de Sade's Justine for guests, or the way she loudly lambasts Brooks and his "little Spanish cunt" in front of an airport full of stunned bystanders.
These were the only scenes to spark some kind of life into Savage Grace. At times the film became so boring I genuinely began to fear for my sanity; scene after scene of painfully stilted line readings almost drove me out of the cinema, but I remained to see if Kalin was building towards any kind of point. Instead, it seems his sole desire was to present this sordid tale to us so we can look at these people and say "Oh, how ghastly they all are!", before moving on and clearing our heads of such unpleasantness. He offers no insight, no perspective, and no resonance; Savage Grace is a heartless, pointless film, and not even the luminescent Moore can redeem it. She's magnificent, but she deserves a much better stage than this.