Sour sixteen

Pub date June 17, 2008
SectionFilm Review

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Tom Kalin’s 1992 Swoon was a signature feature from the New Queer Cinema movement. Its dramatization of the 1920s Leopold and Loeb case seemed arresting for both its crisp black-and-white photography and flagrant disregard for still-prevalent sentiments that gay screen imagery need always be case-pleadingly positive. Here was talented Kalin, making his first feature about two notorious Chicago thrill-killers — privileged young gay lovers who murdered a 14-year-old boy they vaguely knew simply to fulfill their self-identification as Nietzschean supermen. However, their perfect crime was detected quickly, to public revulsion that no doubt cast a long, dark shadow over gay-rights struggles for decades afterward.

Swoon was striking but superficial — a cool-looking, attitudinal performance piece riding on gallery aesthetics, fashionable moral ambiguity, and Kalin’s professed admiration for the real-life protagonists as anarchic revolutionist souls. (To which I say: bullshit.) It certainly got him enough attention to leg-up a career. Yet he’s only now finished a second feature.

Two feature films in 16 years provide thin grounds for trend-spotting. Still, it’s hard to ignore that Savage Grace is another true-crime dramatization involving murder and decadence within the social elite, one that replaces Swoon‘s amoral Jazz Age gay Chicagoan youths with postwar transatlantic jet-setters. Kalin has a Dominick Dunne–like nose for bloodlust among the powerful and privileged. It led him to the 1972 murder of socialite Barbara Daly Baekeland by her son Antony, an act that subsequently exposed years of incest, adultery, substance abuse, questionable parenting, and rampant craziness — all within the glittering A-list milieux befitting beneficiaries of the Bakelite Plastics fortune

The 1985 book Savage Grace used interviews, letters, and diary entries to tell the gruesome story in first-person pastiche. Redirecting that saga toward conventional dramatic narrative, Kalin and scenarist Howard A. Rodman can’t replicate that tome’s multiplicity of voices, nor do they try — after all, the toxic mixture of lurid acts and privileged environs inevitably compels interest. But just as Swoon displayed a detached appreciation of — rather than deep insight into — its glamorously bent protagonists, Savage Grace exhibits an infatuation with the glitterati who turn out scandalous freakazoids minus any palpable sense of what went wrong.

"Everything that happened, happened because of love," says grown-up Antony (Eddie Redmayne) in voiceover. But love isn’t the precise term one would apply to life with his high-end transient family: codependency, manipulation, and massive narcissism are more apt. Raised poor but pathologically ambitious, ex-model Barbara (Julianne Moore) snagged old money — at least by US standards — when she snagged Brooks Baekeland (Stephen Dillane).

Their union already had degenerated into relentless social climbing and mutual cheating — along with the occasional hatefuck — by the time little Antony arrives. Prone to smother-motherdom and jags of irresponsible neglect, Barbara raises him to become a filigreed rich-hippie Eurail dandy. He gains a male lover, then a girlfriend poached by Dad, then becomes involved in a three-way with Mom and her suave older beard (Hugh Dancy). Meanwhile, scenes shift from Manhattan to Catalonia to Paris to London. A boy could go crazy from so much disorienting change — though you might not realize from this film that the true-life Antony had exhibited signs of schizophrenia at an early age.

Also missing from Savage Grace are such telling real details as the Baekelands’ refusal to allow Antony therapy, or Antony’s prior knife-wielding threats toward Mom, or her failed attempts to make him heterosexual by hiring dates for him. These elements might have enriched a movie that comes off as entirely outside-in. Kalin’s visual attention to lifestyle particulars doesn’t deepen these characters. It merely accessorizes them.

Moore may be incapable of a bad performance, yet this seemingly ideal role elicits one of her thinnest characterizations. She’s duly alluring and grasping, and unpredictably profane when she’s raging. But Kalin and Rodman haven’t given this monster mother any substance. Considered by many to be the story’s true villain, Dillane’s neglectful Brooks makes a too-vague impression. However, the reliable Dancy is excellent as a dedicated follower of fashion, and Redmayne’s nervous eyes convey the ratcheting instability of a boy-man who instinctively knows his worldview is tragically wrong.

Sixteen years haven’t made much difference for Kalin. Even in color, his shallow vision of imploding personalities feels like tabloid artsploitation. Other New Queer Cinema mavericks have gone on to make films that challenge artistic, thematic, and commercial assumptions. In comparison, Savage Grace is oddly conservative. *


Opens June 27 at Bay Area theaters