Savage Grace

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PARIS -- American director Tom Kalin will probably not take it too amiss to hear his second feature "Savage Grace" described as a fine example of European filmmaking. With its themes of dynastic decline, incest, madness and death, the movie will inevitably draw comparisons with works by Visconti, Fassbinder, Godard (for its use of music and Mediterranean light) and those two other notable European filmmakers, Joseph Losey and Orson Welles.

While such antecedents do not necessarily mark "Savage Grace" as a masterpiece, this Directors' Fortnight offering is undoubtedly superior to many of the movies now competing for the Palme d'Or. Festival organizers worldwide will want it for their schedules, and the movie should perform well on the art house circuit and in Europe as a whole.

U.S. viewers may be put off by its tangled sexual motifs and find its implied social critique a little close to the bone. But even Stateside, Julianne Moore, in her most challenging role in years, will win plaudits and attract mature audiences to a thoroughly absorbing and polished piece of work.

In a series of six episodes spread between 1946 and 1972, "Savage Grace" tells the real-life story of Barbara Daly (Moore), the former actress and aspiring socialite who married into the fabulously wealthy Baekeland family, and her tortuous relationship with her son Tony. Her brittle personality and the inability of her husband Brooks (Stephen Dillane) to cope with it are evident in the early New York scenes when Tony is a baby. By 1959, with the couple installed in Paris with their 13-year-old son, the marriage is clearly heading for the rocks.

By the time the action decamps to Cadaques in Spain and then Ibiza in the late 1960s, Barbara's smothering affections have left Tony (Eddie Redmayne) ill-equipped to deal with a life of idleness and his own confused sexuality. Tony's half-hearted attempt at a relationship with a local girl, Blanca (Elena Anaya), ends when Brooks makes off with her instead, eventually marrying her. Scorned by his father for his homosexuality -- he has been seduced by a beach acquaintance, Jake (Unax Ugalde) -- and torn between a desire to escape his mother's clutches and the knowledge that he is her sole emotional support, Tony begins a descent into mental illness.

The process is accelerated by the appearance on Ibiza of Sam (Hugh Dancy), a bisexual art dealer who shacks up with Barbara and to whom Tony is attracted. After a brief return to Paris, Barbara and Tony move on to London, where Tony obtains a job in the art world and to the denouement which, given everything that has come before, can reasonably be described as inevitable.

Kalin and writer Howard Rodman have pared to the essentials the mass of material provided by Natalie Robins and Stephen M.L. Aronson in their book on the Daly-Baekeland affair, structuring it to highlight the resemblance to classical tragedy. They make liberal use of letters written by the protagonists to each other and to third-party comments cited in the book, notably one by Brooks' father: "One of the uses of money is that it allows us not to live with the consequences of our mistakes."

By scrupulously avoiding melodrama, Kalin ensures that the characters remain recognizably human despite their flaws and monstrous weaknesses. He is particularly acute on the pitfalls facing monied Americans who choose to lead cloistered lives away from their homeland and captures the hedonism of '60s youth without resort to cliche.

Technically, the movie is impeccable across the board, as befits a director who took a 15-year break following his debut feature ("Swoon") in order to experiment with video, super-8, 16mm and other media, achieving its objectives with economy, wit and an unerring eye for the telling detail.


SAVAGE GRACE
Montfort Producciones, Killer Films, Celluloid Dreams Prods.
Credits:
Director: Tom Kalin
Screenwriter: Howard A. Rodman
Based on the book by: Natalie Robins, Steven M.L. Aronson
Producers: Iker Montfort, Katie Roumel, Pamela Koffler, Christine Vachon
Director of photography: Juanmi Azpiroz
Production designer: Victor Molero
Music: Fernando Velazquez
Editors: Tom Kalin, John F. Lyons, Enara Goicotxea
Cast:
Barbara: Julianne Moore
Brooks: Stephen Dillane
Antony: Eddie Redmayne
Blanca: Elena Anaya
Jake: Unax Ugalde
Pilar: Belen Rueda
Sam: Hugh Dancy
Running time -- 87 minutes
No MPAA rating
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