Saturday, August 09, 2008

Savage Grace

I think the natural place to begin a review of this film would be to describe who the story is about, but the problem is that I am not entirely sure who the story is about. There is also the possible angle of describing what the story is about, but here I run into trouble, too - it’s either about a dysfunctional family, or about the truly twisted ends to which wealth and extravagance can drive the people who possess both those things and who also have virtually no boundaries in their personal lives behind closed doors, a sense of entitlement and self-righteousness born of old money and perpetuated by the grueling engine of high society.

It would probably help if I had read (completely) the source material on which the film is based, a book called Savage Grace: The True Story Of Fatal Relations In A Rich And Famous American Family, by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson - an oral history of a chapter in the lives of Brooks and Barbara Baekeland (he the heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune, she his appearances-driven and exceedingly pretentious wife) and their only son, Tony. Trouble is, the book didn’t grab me. Most of the names of the people who contribute to the conversation are names that ring no bells with me, and the biographical notes at the back are only occasionally helpful (to wit, there are only so many times you can flip to the back in order to find out who someone is and how they are significant, only to discover that their note says simply that they now live in New York City, before you stop consulting the notes entirely).

I started the book again from page one after I got home from screening the film Thursday night, and the movie does help to inform the book; but as I am sure that the movie was made to stand as a work of art on its own merits, it therefore does not hold that the movie was made solely to illuminate the book. This brings us to another problem to do with talking about the story - the suspenseful end to which the film builds is the first event described in the book. The whole point of the book is to try to present an idea of how such a thing could come to pass - the exploration of this idea is what makes the story compelling, but without first knowing of the event to which the story leads, the series of vignettes presented in the film feels random and arbitrary. Because the film is based on true events, it is conceivable - perhaps even likely - that most of the people who are interested in this film will know ahead of time how it is going to end.

Yet the film is presented as a dramatic psychosexual thriller, and the fatal flaw in presenting the story as such a thing is that it is not that kind of thing. A dramatic thriller (psychosexual or otherwise) must have a compelling plot and engaging characters (No Country For Old Men, The Silence Of The Lambs, Seven, The Usual Suspects). Savage Grace has neither, and it has the further misfortune of featuring perhaps the most unlikable principal cast of characters in the history of cinema.

The problem with Savage Grace is not that the subject matter is so lurid, though it is that; and it is not that the lurid subject matter is so graphically depicted (though it is that, too), nor even that such a tragic human melodrama is so melodramatically presented; rather, the problem is that why this story unfolds the way it does is but hinted at in oblique references to Brooks Baekeland’s ancestors and Barbara Baekeland’s seemingly random bouts of rage and equally random bouts of tenderness.

The audience is dropped abruptly into the early middle of the unhappy marriage of Brooks and Barbara Baekeland, two of New York’s moneyed elite in the middle twentieth century. They want for nothing but happiness, but we are not meant to understand why; and it is this unhappiness that drives their pathologies (and informs Tony’s pathology, as well), though there is precious little frame of reference to the inner demons that devour these characters. The result is that the events that unfold seem gratuitously perverse; the characters are entirely unsympathetic; and the film as a whole feels like a highly-stylized soft porn snuff film.

(One little side note on the acting: I generally adore Julianne Moore. I think she is a brilliant actress, and though her work in this film is fine, it is not her best [that would be Far From Heaven - and if you managed to miss that one, well, then...I can’t help you] - so much of what she projects feels awkward and forced [notwithstanding the fact that the subject matter in some instances necessitates this], almost as though she knows she is working with bad material and feels actively guilty about it.)

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