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Smother Love

Savage Grace, Dir. Tom Kalin, Now Playing

<i>Julianne Moore channels a monster mother in</i> Savage Grace. <i>Copyright IFC First Take</i>
Julianne Moore channels a monster mother in Savage Grace. Copyright IFC First Take

Anyone seeking a powerful argument for hiking the estate tax need look no further than Savage Grace, Tom Kalin’s exploration of life among the trustafarians. Rarely has a film depicted with such candor the havoc an inheritance can wreak.

Based on the nonfiction book of the same name, Savage Grace tells the story of the high-society heirs of Leo Baekeland, who made his pile at the beginning of the 20th century by inventing Bakelite and ushering in the plastics age. His grandson, Brooks (Stephen Dillane), cushioned by the family fortune, leads a life of aristocratic emptiness, enlivened and bedeviled by his parvenu firecracker of a wife, Barbara (Julianne Moore).

Brooks once led a National Geographic expedition into the mountains of Peru but now doesn’t appear to do much of anything. Barbara fancies herself a painter but spends most of her time social climbing. The Baekeland millions have clearly saddled these two with an inferiority complex and severe reality deficiency.

Savage Grace is, like its central characters, a pretty but poisonous piece of work. The film’s a disappointment in many respects, but it does offer the solace, sweet during these difficult economic times, of watching the sufferings and sins of people whose responsibility-sapping wealth hasn’t spared them from going deeply, horribly crazy. And Moore is terrific. She nails Barbara’s toxic charm, her avid beauty, her hypermanic vitality powered by searing but unacknowledged rage. We can see why Brooks fell in love and why now he’s sick to death of her.

Barbara’s real passion is for the newest Baekeland heir, the couple’s son, Tony. The contrast between the hungry tenderness she showers on the baby and the brutal psychological warfare she and Brooks practice on each other portends a stormy future for the boy. When we next see him he’s become an epicene little ponce who strolls about Paris wearing a sailor outfit (are there no bullies among the very rich?) and answers, “Yes, of course!” when his mother asks him, “Will you still love me when my hair is gray and my tits are sagging?”

It’s no surprise when Tony fails to grow up to be a he-man. As an adult (played by Eddie Redmayne), he’s a weedy Rita Tushingham lookalike with a hangdog air and a complicated sex life that’s very much a family affair. He sleeps with other boys and when he beds a girl, soon loses her to his father, who decamps with the girlfriend and shuns both wife and son. Then Tony seduces his mother’s gay but accommodating lover. And that’s just the warm-up for the Oedipal extravaganza in Act III.

“Taking care of Mommy was your job,” Tony voice-overs to his father after the older man goes awol. “But when you left her, Brooks, taking care of Mommy became my inheritance.” His words take on ever darker meaning as the movie hurries to its awful conclusion.

The story may be sordid but the pictures are gorgeous: the playgrounds of Cadaques, Mallorca, Paris, and London, Moore’s mane of red hair blazing against a lavender gown, handsome boys embracing on a Mediterranean beach. One scene in particular, a sinuous overhead of a Baekeland family bedtime three-way, is simultaneously so lovely and so horrifying that I doubt I’ll ever forget it.

Kalin’s first film was the 1992 Swoon, which retold the history of the thrill killers Leopold and Loeb as a tale of homophobic self-hatred turned outward. In his second outing, this one-time charter member of the New Queer Cinema appears, oddly enough, to endorse the traditional Freudian notion that homosexuality is the pathological outcome of a sexually overbearing mother and emotionally absent father.

The idea that gay people suffer from a disease caused by poor parenting is what queer activists have been fighting against for decades. But Savage Grace kept reminding me of the old joke about the graffiti exchange on a New York wall: “My mother made me a homosexual.” “If I give her the yarn, will she make me one, too?”

Childish and uncertain, Tony seems not so much gay as hopelessly confused, while Barbara’s twisted relationship with him is painted so vividly we can’t help seeing her as the force that has defined him. Perhaps Tony’s father’s own heterosexuality is less than rock solid, but after dropping a few hints in this regard the film hurries back to ogling Barbara’s florid misbehavior.

The real-life Tony Baekeland was diagnosed as schizophrenic, another disorder that used to be blamed on sub-par mothering (wasn’t everything?) but is now recognized to have a deeper biological basis. That, too, gets short shrift. We see bits of evidence that Tony’s mind is unraveling, and it’s clear that Barbara is as mad as two hatters. But Savage Grace scrutinizes the Baekelands’ saga not as a case history but as a divinely decadent morality tale: Barbara is a monster, Brooks is a turd, and tragedy results.

It’s a cold-hearted dissection of one over-privileged family’s disintegration that exhibits more interest in their outfits than their anguish. Even the rich deserve a little more sympathy than they’re given here.


Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2008

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