August 13, 2008

Savage Grace

'Each man kills the thing he loves' said Oscar Wilde, 'they fuck you up, your mum and dad' said Phillip Larkin, Savage Grace combines the two lessons into one very powerful point. It is a film about the impact of parents on children, sexuality on life and wealth on everything. It takes as its focus the family of Anthony Baekeland and narrates the story of his mother and father and Anthony himself. Often we are told the story through the voice of Anthony, but the central focus is on the family unit- closenit and terrifying in its intense relationships. When Larkin said that they fuck you up, he possibly didn't mean it as literally as we see it here. We see a father steal his son's girlfriend. A mother seduce her own son. A mother and her homosexual lover, Sam, have a threesome with her son. This is hardly the model of an all American family- indeed what might normally pass as sexual excess- dominating anal heterosexual sex- seems here to be the epitome of normality. But do not be convinced that the sex is the headline about this film- in reality the sex is mundane and boring: you get the sense of being at Caligula's court, as everything is permitted and available, it is all boring.

No the centre of this film is the way that these characters- Anthony, his mother Barbara and his father Brooks come together in a fatal fashion- culminating in a famous murder (at the time in 1972- yes this is a true story). The characters are irredeemably boring- I cannot convey how boring they are save by inviting you to read this article from one of the participants in the story, Sam Green (the supposed inhabitor of Barbara and Tony's bed). The article is filled with the kind of self obsessive name dropping that characterises the world of these characters- of all the paraphenalia of the dull shininess of celebrity. The article is amazing in the way that it deepens the unattractiveness of the character you are reading about- a vapid social butterfly- but that is indeed the nature of the characters in the film, they are all vapid social butterflies. People who love to tell you how they call Greta Garbo Mrs G, or to dine with princes. Without the ability or knowledge to do anything- Brooks Baekeland is an adventurer who seems to do nothing- Barbara is a painter who doesn't paint- and Tony merely picks up his guitar when he grows up in a lugubrious way. At one point, the younger Tony asks Barbara what his parents do- she says that they are lucky and can afford to do nothing- their vapidness is a consequence of their idleness and a standing advert for employment if ever I saw one (getting up at seven the next morning didn't seem so bad having seen this film).

Idleness and celebrity chatter apart what strikes you immediatly about this film is the vicious nastiness of the characters. We open with the two Baekelands gathering to go to a party- Brooks hates it, Barbara loves it- their exchanges are barbed. You might think that that is as barbed as it gets but oh no! At the party Brooks confesses to Barbara that for ten million he would go home with the first person he met in a club, promptly she gets into the first car she sees on the street and sleeps with the young man inside it. This viciousness is combined with the sense of a smothering environment- the young man isn't even safe in the bath from his mother's entrances! Young Tony is homosexual or has those tendencies- he does at one point date a girl, who his father promptly steals- but he is homosexual. For both his parents this proves an opportunity to unleash their viciousness- not here the viciousness of the barbed comment, but the viciousness of stupid incomprehension. Both of them try to cure the young boy- and as they do he slowly drifts into angry silence. An angry silence made only worse as his parents' marriage splits- and his mother begins losing her mental cohesion. A terrible crime follows.

The skill of this director does not rest in making a nice film or one that is easy to watch. In places this film is good because its boring- because it demonstrates that this life is incredibly boring- shorn of all the things which make life worth living, love, successful striving towards a genuine goal, interests, real friendship. One character says to another at one point that Brooks thinks everything is shit- how right she is, reduced to a world of silver and gold- even those things feel like shit and the director gets that across. Despite the sex, this is not an erotic film. Despite the wealth, this is not a film that makes you envy luxury. Despite the celebrity this is an antidote to X Factor. Julianne Moore does a great job as Barbara, Stephen Dillane is condescendingly and arrogantly perfect as Brooks- but a special mention must go to Eddie Redmayne playing Tony who does brilliantly at portraying him, he gets him from the irritating to the pathetic in a wonderful character arc. It would have been interesting to see more of Elena Anaya's Blanca (Brooks's and then Tony's girlfriend) because she seems one of the few 'normal' characters on view who actually cares about the family- understanding her might have led to understanding what attractions these despicable people had.

The end of this film is truly shocking. The director and his actors have done a good job- but I did not enjoy watching this. There were no glimmers of light- these lives were depressing, boring and horrible- and watching them unravel is the same. Dark films are at their best when they make you care about their characters- this was like watching the demons suffer in the last circles of hell.