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Friday, June 13, 2008

'Savage Grace'

Portrayal of the beautiful and the damned

There's much that's grotesque about "Savage Grace," but director Tom Kalin and writer Howard A. Rodman deliberately candy-wrap the unseemliness in decorous crepe paper — with the result that the poisonous goo leaks from the edges with a creepily gothic effect.

Savage Grace Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star

Director: Tom Kalin
Running time: 107 minutes
Language: English
Now showing (June 13, 2008)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Based on the true story (adapted from a book by Natalie Robins) of the Baekeland family, who racked up a fortune from the famed Bakelite plastic, "Savage Grace" is all about sex — but sex without beauty or passion or even the sizzle of forbidden pleasure. Combining this with the ambience of wealth, "Savage Grace" is tinged with a Visconti-like elegance, and indeed some scenes are obvious homages to that director's 1971 film "Death in Venice."

But real eroticism is absent from this film and the temperature never rises above a mild coolness. By the end, the spiritual lethargy of the characters is so catching that you find yourself viewing all the sexual wreckage with the calm and appraising eye of a curator.

The centerpiece is Julianne Moore, whose statuesque figure and patrician features offset the tinkle of cocktail glasses in the world inhabited by her character, Barbara Baekeland. Barbara worked as a model and an actress before being propositioned by Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane), sole heir to the Baekeland fortune. She promptly gave birth to a son, Antony (portrayed in childhood by Barney Clark and later, as a young adult, by Eddie Redmayne), and proceeded to spend the next 25 years in classy, leisurely splendor. In a voiceover narrative by the grown Antony, in which he recalls his mother, he describes her as a "natural socialite" for whom parties and an adoring entourage were as necessary as oxygen. But the movie doesn't show her in this vein so much. Though publicly Barbara acts with the assurance of the rich and privileged, in private she's a nervy, needy ex-starlet, always trying to prove her attractiveness to a distant husband.

Brooks gives new meaning to the word "snide," and his responses to Barbara's overtures consist mainly of sarcastic quips and guarded cynicism. He's repelled by her social climbing, but does nothing to offer any diversions even as he moves the family from New York to Paris and then to resort spots all over southern Europe, where they live in the same, isolated cocoon of his own weaving.

As a couple, Brooks and Barbara are pretty much despicable, but at least Barbara has a sense of humor about it — if a skewed and tragic one. It's perhaps this humor that blunts her other sensibilities, and she slips into bed with her own son (fully aware that he's gay) with the remorseless ease of an older woman taking a young lover. On the other hand, she could have been getting back at Brooks, who beds Antony's Spanish girlfriend Blanca (Elena Anaya) after the woman's attempt to make love with Antony failed miserably. Faced with the double betrayal of her husband's infidelity and her son's homosexuality, Barbara's response is to alienate Brooks and enforce a perverted one-on-one with her little boy. As far as she's concerned, Antony could reject the entire female species as long as he found his mother sexually desirable.

She actually laughs about her own manipulativeness, and in one sequence stages a threesome in a Majorcan villa with Antony, herself and a kind of bisexual hanger-on by the name of Sam (Hugh Dancy) whom she invites to spend the summer. It's hot, a bottle of wine is open on the bedside table, the afternoon sun slants through the blinds and forms diagonal patterns on the sheets. The scene could be one charged with a languid eroticism, but what culminates instead is a desperate tawdriness. Only Antony in his youthful inexperience took their amorous menage a trois seriously, but another two years go by before his mother finally realizes the full extent of her inflicted damage.

To Kalin's credit, "Savage Grace" never sinks into tabloid sensationalism, but the film feels too personal, falling short of drawing what was, in essence, a tragedy born of American upper-class boredom. Barbara says to Antony that Brooks had never worked in his entire life and neither will Antony ("You're very lucky. Think of all the people in the world who have to work."), without knowing that the words could fall on a man's ears like a prison sentence. Brooks survives his vast amount of leisure time by philandering and destroying his family. His son fares worse and becomes a hopeless mama's boy, eventually turning to violence to gain a little freedom. They were both victims of monied lethargy, while Barbara's worst enemy was her own self. The Japanese title for this movie ("Utsukushisugiru Haha") means "The Too-Beautiful Mother" — but by the end of the story you'll feel there are more fitting adjectives to describe her.

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