Savage Grace (2007)
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as Barbara Baekeland
as Brooks Baekeland
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Critic Reviews for Savage Grace
While the pace occasionally flags and there are times when we wonder where Kalin is leading us, he maintains a pervasive sense of dread and unease throughout that makes the chilling climax seem both shocking and inevitable.
Though the characters may be repellent, the film permits you to feel sympathy.
It's a horror story, all right, but the reason for telling it remains unclear, and it seems like a waste of Kalin's evident talent.
Ridiculous. An artsy-soapy drawing room study of bored contempt and idle peccadilloes amongst the 1950s-'60s-'70s jet set in Europe.
Audience Reviews for Savage Grace
When a film critic describes a film as ‚??admirable‚??, it is usually a polite way of saying that the film is disappointing. You have to admire Steven Spielberg for making Schindler‚??s List, or Terry Gilliam for finishing The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. But all the good feeling and intentions in the world do not make these good films; often one‚??s admiration for one aspect of a film is quickly followed by a damning attack on the rest.
You would imagine that Savage Grace would fall into the same camp. It‚??s certainly admirable in its intentions; the story of Barbara Daly Baekeland remains a bizarre open secret, shocking in its time but long since forgotten. And there is no doubt that in its execution and structure, it is not an unconditional success. Savage Grace is a twisted and difficult film, and at times it is very hard to feel involved in what is unfolding. But for those who would endure its unusual approach and overlook its weaknesses, it is a thought-provoking and shocking story anchored by a brilliant central performance.
It‚??s easy to make a film about rich, successful people having problems; Ishmael Merchant and James Ivory made a career out of it. It‚??s much harder to make us care about such people, whose problems often have little direct bearing on our own lives. Savage Grace makes this task harder because of the way in which its subject is presented. Tom Kalin‚??s direction is unflinchingly cool; he never wimps out during the graphic or disturbing scenes, but it often feels like you‚??re watching the film through a series of murky windows. The characters are very difficult to get a handle on; unlike Lolita, there is no central figure with whom we emotionally identify.
In other films, this distance would irritate us to the point at which we give up. But if you compare this to the similarly glacial Public Enemies, you begin to understand Kalin‚??s reasoning. Public Enemies attempted to paint a nostalgic picture of 1930s America, with John Dillinger as both its greatest hero and biggest criminal. But the ultra-modern hand-held shooting style was at odds with this nostalgia, meaning that audiences simply could not bond with the characters. Savage Grace is not in the least bit nostalgic for either the period or its social graces; its stately camera work allows us to dissect the period through the tragic central story. We learn to accept the characters as products of a lifestyle, rather than as a series of irritating bores.
Savage Grace takes the Baekelands‚?? story and uses it as the prism for an examination of success. It argues that such insane levels of wealth and luxury breed deep-rooted mental insecurity, and much like American Psycho it paints a picture of material success as something morally empty and vacuous. The central lines of the film are spoken by Tony in the narration: ‚??One of the uses of money is that it allows us not to live with the consequences of our mistakes.‚?? It is quite clear from the events which follow, and in the manner in which they play out, that both Tony and Kalin disagree.
The film is centrally about the suffocating influence of wealth and family. This is on one level literally true, since at the end of the film we are told that Tony died by suffocating himself with a plastic bag (an ironic death, since his family made their fortune in plastics). But it is conveyed on a deeper level by the relationship between Tony and his mother. This begins safely enough; Barbara is presented as someone who is flamboyant, provocative and occasionally outspoken, but generally concerned with improving her husband‚??s image. But after he begins an affair, she steadily transforms into a far more twisted and bizarre creature. Her protective attitude towards Tony becomes even more marked; she treats her son like a surrogate husband, consummating their incest and despising the thought of him having gay lovers.
The film rises and falls on the performance of Julianne Moore, who is on startling, spellbinding form. It‚??s very hard to think of anybody else who could pull off such a complex role. Moore‚??s beauty has an old-fashioned elegance to it which is perfect for the character, and the script offers her many juicy lines in several different languages. But it‚??s her outbursts which brilliantly reveal the monster inside; someone who is spiteful, vicious, overprotective and self-loathing. Moore really taps into the character, playing her as essentially a tragic figure who silently craves affection.
The central scene of Savage Grace comes when Barbara goes to the airport to meet her husband. She finds him with his mistress, a girl who only minutes earlier was her son‚??s girlfriend. She unleashes a carefully choreographed hell, calling him a coward and the girl a whore, followed by a blistering tirade about his penchant for anal sex. Having said all she can but to no avail, she walks outside and slowly disintegrates. This is the moment at which Barbara begins the irreversible decline into mental illness and sexual waywardness. Her dress, which looks blood-spattered, is a possible reference to the pig-blood scene in Carrie: both instances are the first time the characters are able to direct their rage and use it for destructive purposes.
Eventually, the film shifts and becomes more about the madness of Tony, which eventually leads him to murder his mother with a kitchen knife. There is very little exploration as to the precise cause of his madness; their relationship is not strictly oedipal, since Tony does not hate his father. There are comparisons with Psycho in the way in which Barbara dominates Tony‚??s life, and the narration does suggest that her death was what such domination would eventually cause. The biggest clue comes in the killer line as Tony is led away: ‚??I have so much in my head, which to let it out would surely kill me. Nevertheless, I feel better now.‚??
The problems with Savage Grace are to be found in little oddities in Kalin‚??s approach. A lot of his decisions don‚??t make sense until the very end of the film, in particular the narration. At the end it works wonders once we realise we are listening to the cracked mind of a killer, and we wonder just how long he has been crazy. But up until that point, it irons out many potentially dramatic scenes, reducing them to bland exposition.
The significance of the dog collar is never explained; it is brought up occasionally and used as a trigger for the murder, but its actual meaning is never properly explored. Much like Don‚??t Look Now, many of the visual devices simply don‚??t work early on. Reversing the film to show Tony writing backwards is a really cheap trick, and is shot in a way which feels closer to The Time Machine than to psychosexual drama.
Savage Grace‚??s flaws are clear for all to see. It is a film to be admired rather than enjoyed ‚?" certainly it‚??s not the sort of thing you‚??d kick back to after a long day. But buried beneath its problems and unusual style is a shocking story which deserved to be told and which has been handled in the most honest way possible. Many scenes are very difficult to watch and the whole film has a really creepy tone in the best possible way. Above all it is a damning and frightening indictment of inherited wealth and the resulting moral vacuum, exemplified by Julianne Moore in her best performance since The Hours. Kalin may make better, more accessible films, but this is an interesting effort which gives American Psycho a run for its money.
"Truth is more shocking than fiction."
A dramatization of the shocking Barbara Daly Baekeland murder case, which happened in a posh London flat on Friday 17 November 1972. The bloody crime caused a stir on both sides of the Atlantic and remains one of the most memorable American Tragedies...
I always have some difficulty with films that are unashamedly brilliant yet difficult to watch. Not in the sense of mentally and artistically challenging (although Savage Grace does this) but in the sense of being downright unpleasant.
The film follows the (true) story of a mismanaged inheritance, complicated by incest and matricide. It is a compelling character study of a young boy left with no sense of direction, no reliable role model and, in an atmosphere where he can seemingly want for nothing, having no-one whom he can trust. Julianne Moore plays the mother with all of her practiced skill, switching from heavily interiorised emotion to outbursts of rage. A complex character, she is desperately trying to find herself, to find some meaning in her existence. An existence where she constantly affirms a society role of being at the crest of a wave. The bisexuality of a man she trusts as a friend later becomes a factor that helps to sheer away her moorings.
Savage Grace is a dark, dark film. For strong constitutions only.
Circling around Savage Grace is this insane self-contained vortex of almost inhuman behavior, a white trash atom bomb just barely held back at the seams by these delusions of class and nobility. Director Tom Kalin is this story's downfall; he doesn't know how to efficiently drip in these juicy little bits of drama and create a cohesive narrative at the same time, so what we end up with here is a tangential collection of really bizarre shocking scenes.
This movie is nowhere near good. There are traces of absolute exquisiteness to be found in the writing, visual composition, and narrative, and Julianne Moore's performance is one of the bravest and most thoughtful she's given in years. Savage Grace is clearly a movie informed by some really sensational tidbits. The problem is they just don't come together to make anything worth championing. The movie is wildly entertaining trash dressed up real pretty, which renders it this awesomely self-aware yet bizarrely delusional piece of uniqueness. It really does have to be seen to be believed.
The more I say about this experience, the more it will compromise it for you, as going into the movie with a clean slate will make the film all the more shocking and ribald and utterly hilarious. Anyway, there's nothing quite like this to be seen in 2008, and if you're a fan of Moore or just over-the-top drama this is a definite must. It's divisive and your mileage may vary, but I think everyone should give it a shot.
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