Although no one can fault the Academy’s decision to bestow a Best Actress Oscar on Julianne Moore, her win for “Still Alice” continues the long tradition of rewarding the right actors for the wrong movie. Moore’s performance isn’t a travesty of her own talent, like Al Pacino’s in “Scent of a Woman,” but she’s been given more to work with in dozens in better films. Eddie Redmayne, who won Best Actor for “The Theory of Everything,” has certainly done worse than his sensitive and soulful portrayal of the young Stephen Hawking, but it’s hard to suppress the suspicions that the Academy is less interested in the nuances of his work than its ostentatious physical transformation.
Fortunately, you can see both Moore and Redmayne at their best in the same movie, and reappraise a great and wrongly maligned work while you’re at it. Tom Kalin’s 2007 “Savage Grace,” his first feature since 1992’s “Swoon,” was a much-anticipated return from the creator of one of the pillars of the New Queer Cinema, but that anticipation turned to disappointment and frank dislike when critics got a look at the film, which tells the story of the incestuous, and eventually murderous, relationship between Bakelite fortune heir Antony Baekeland (Redmayne) and his mother, Barbara (Moore).
As he did with “Swoon,” which focused on the same Leopold and Loeb murders that inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope,” Kalin took an irresistably lurid story and approached it with heady aesthetic distance. But where “Swoon” treated its subject with a dreamy remove, “Savage Grace” adopted a visual style that was more overtly naturalistic, the unfiltered light of Mediterranean villas contrasting pointedly with Redmayne’s and especially Moore’s stylized performances.
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This seemed to confuse quite a few critics, many of whom were in any case not-so-subtly squicked out by “Savage Grace’s” subject matter. Variety’s Jay Weisberg targeted the film’s “maddeningly over-arch dialogue and struggles with characterization,” while in the New York Times, A.O. Scott said said the characters seemed “vague, stilted and unreal.” The latter seems precisely the point: As Moore plays Barbara Baekeland — in a mode not too far removed from her performances in Todd Haynes’ “Safe” and “Far From Heaven” — she’s a brittle high-society poseur trying to live down the tragic error of marrying into a fortune that’s all but evaporated. She schools young Tony in French while her own attempts at mastering a series of second languages fall flat, and eventually fails so decisively at convincing the outside world of her Continental sophistication that she turns inward instead.
Although it wasn’t available anywhere except on DVD last fall when Moore’s and Redmayne’s names first began to circulate in the awards conversation, the film’s distributor has since wised up and made it available for streaming, free on Hulu Plus and for rental via Amazon, iTunes and Sundance Now. You won’t be sorry you watched it.
I reviewed the movie for the Philadelphia City Paper at the time, and since a redesign killed the original link, I’m reproducing that review here as well. I was young. Be gentle.
“One of the uses of money is that it allows us not to live with the consequences of our mistakes.” Those words, attributed to plastics millionaire Leo Baekeland and spoken by his grandson Brooks, hang over Savage Grace like a warning from the gods. A delicate cross between classical tragedy and true-crime novel, the movie is set among the idle rich of postwar Europe, where Brooks (Stephen Dillane) and his wife, Barbara (Julianne Moore) bask in the Mediterranean sun and the reflected glow of literary lions. Brooks is a self-styled adventurer, and Barbara dabbles in painting, but their main occupation is being themselves, or rather, the selves they wish to be.
Moore has often played women whose flawless exteriors mask a private pain, but she has never played a character so violently at odds with herself. The movie makes much of the fact that Barbara briefly tried her hand at acting before marrying rich. Her whole life is a performance, though not always a successful one. She coos over a French scholar, attempting to impress him with questions like, “So, was Proust truly a homosexual?” But when she senses that her charade has provoked condescension rather than acceptance, she is instantly feral, hurling insults in pidgin French with the fury of a scorned goddess.
The Baekelands’ marriage might have been merely poisonous and not catastrophic had they had the wisdom not to reproduce. Their son, Tony, has his father’s linguistic ease and his mother’s need to please, with the careless air of one who’s always known his future was assured. Eddie Redmayne, who takes over the role when Tony reaches adolescence, has floppy, sun-streaked hair and a wide, unsullied face that makes him seem open to the world and endlessly vulnerable
Even when Tony is in his crib, Brooks and Barabara’s relationship is one of expediency and open contempt, and it only grows more poisonous as he grows older. When their marriage eventually shattered, Barbara and Tony are left alone with each other, and the film retreats from the outside world. Barbara is still acting, but for an audience of one, and perhaps herself as well.
Although the Baekelands’ story is fact, revealing its ending would serve only to make Savage Grace sound sordid and exploitative, which it emphatically is not. One of the things that makes Tom Kalin’s film so effective is that as the Baekelands’ saga grows more complicated, his approach grows simpler. By the time their actions flower into their full perversity, Juan Miguel Azpiroz’s camera can only watch.
Once hailed as a progenitor of New Queer Cinema alongside the likes of Todd Haynes, Kalin’s last (and first) movie was 1992’s Swoon, a dreamy black-and-white revisitation of the Leopold and Loeb murders. Savage Grace shares an obvious bond with the (much) earlier work, but its impact is more gradual, cumulatively devastating rather than instantly striking. Rodman’s self-consciously literate script has its share of pungent moments, but many are apparent only in hindsight. The movie strenuously refrains from psychologizing its characters, but the final sickening twists of plot are almost subliminally foreshadowed. It makes the unthinkable seem inevitable.
Without descending into camp, Moore plays Barbara on the edge of caricature, an elegant monster with a heart full of knives. But when Barbara falters, we see the fear and anguish behind the would-be grand dame. When she catches Brooks in the airport with another woman, she lashes out at him with imperious fury, hoping to achieve greatness even in defeat. But as she turns away, her face begins to crack, and the loss and confusion pours through. Moore accomplishes this feat in a single, unmoving shot, her resolve shattering as she walks toward the camera, with a simplicity that evokes Bette Davis or Barabara Stanwyck.
Some viewers, and not a few reviewers, are plainly repulsed by Savage Grace’s subject matter, and one can hardly blame them. But Kalin’s delicacy and insight more than justify the voyage into such fetid waters. The Baekelands do not, finally, escape the consequences of their actions. Their privilege merely delays the reckoning, and allows their faults to become deficits no amount of money can balance.