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Friday, June 13, 2008

FILM INTERVIEW

A skilled scrutinizer of perversity


Tom Kalin is best known for his 1992 feature debut "Swoon," a stylish but keenly observed thriller about a gay couple who, in the 1920s, murdered a child. His latest film, "Savage Grace," is also about a relationship defined by perversity.

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Psyche surveyor: Director Tom Kalin KAORI SHOJI PHOTO

The film traces the tragedy of the Baekeland family that rose to immense fortune with the invention of Bakelite Plastic in the 1920s, retreated from the public eye and then made tabloid headlines when wife-of-the-heir, Barbara Baekeland, was murdered by her son in 1971.

The director, on a promotional trip to Tokyo, said there's "a thread" connecting "Swoon" to "Savage Grace," but his latest was "more about class in American society. You can't discuss the Baekelands without discussing class and all that it implies. In this sense, "Savage Grace" has social underpinnings that "Swoon" didn't have." But he does admit that the film is mainly the story of one woman "who was fascinating in what she desired, and got. Barbara Baekeland led a charmed life, but it didn't make her happy. And her unhappiness drove her to make many mistakes, one of which was entering into a sexual relationship with her son."

Here's the director with more on his take on the film and subjects related to it.

In your opinion, what really was the story of Barbara Baekeland's life?

Simply put, her story can be described as a profound failure. Up to a point, she worked for what she wanted, and succeeded: marriage to an enormously wealthy man, privilege and class.

Barbara herself came from humble origins and apparently this made up a big part of her insecurity. She fought against this insecurity throughout her marriage, and in doing that failed in the most important duties, like raising her son or maintaining bonds with her husband.

Did she want Antony to work and be a self-assertive man?

It's hard to say what she wanted from Antony, except to keep him close and for him to shower her with attention. She fashioned him into the husband Brooks never was, and that's an impossibly huge burden to bear for any boy. She needed to be the center of her son's life, but apart from that she had no ambitions for him. Because of that, he became damaged, really damaged.

Why did you depict Brooks as such a distant father?

It's part of the tradition of that family for the men to always reject their sons. Having established the Baekeland fortune, Brooks's grandfather rejected Brooks's father, who in turn ignored Brooks. And for Brooks, Antony was a disappointment from the beginning, mainly because he was much more Barbara's little boy than his own. Brooks is distant in the film because he was distant in real life.

What do you think is the pivotal scene that depicts Brooks's relationship with Antony?

In Paris, when the adolescent Antony is taking a bath and his parents walk in on him. Confronted by his son's growing body, Brooks becomes confused and resentful — notice how he's obviously uncomfortable and flustered while Barbara behaves perfectly naturally. He hated that Barbara was close to Antony, and they had already created a little world of their own where he had no place. It's a classic Oedipal Triangle, but in this case more complex because Antony is actually gay.

What are your own thoughts on the American class system?

I grew up in a typical middle-class suburb and was close to my mother, but not in any way like Antony was to Barbara. I didn't even know there was such a thing as class until high school. This is true of so many kids, I think. We grow up witnessing certain manifestations of money, like a huge house and lots of cars in the garage and we would say, "Wow, they're rich!" But that isn't the same thing as class, and we don't see the subtle distinctions until adulthood. But I was always enamored, in a way, with the American upper class because there's a whole lot of powerful fiction coming from it — Scott Fitzgerald of course, and I was heavily influenced by Truman Capote.


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