Savage Grace, Tom Kalin’s first feature since 1992’s Swoon, is a dull pastiche about the life and murder of socialite Barbara Daly Baekeland. “A master of the understated” is how Tony (Eddie Redmayne) describes his mummy in the film’s opening voiceover, and her cunning is demonstrated at a dinner party during which the barriers of language and rules of etiquette collide: After a man presumes Barbara (Julianne Moore) doesn’t understand French and makes a crude remark about her rump, the woman tries to get a younger Tony (Barney Clark) to read from a George Bataille-approved copy of the Marquise de Sade’s Justine. The scene is dizzying, even if it’s unclear if Barbara is reacting against the rules of bourgeois engagement or to the Frenchman’s affront, but Kalin presumes his aesthetic mode is as provocative as Barbara’s wild couture: He wants to provoke but his angles are often confusing, as in a scene where Barbara’s husband Brooks (Stephen Dillane) fucks her in the ass and it’s uncertain if she’s looking into a mirror or down a hallway. From New York in 1946 to London in 1972, the story jostles from one jet-setting locale to the next at an ugly pace, all set to a meaninglessly smoky soundtrack, picking up and losing characters without fanfare until Barbara and Tony’s incest is flung at audiences like some putrid animal skin. If the much-ballyhooed scene is hardly disturbing it’s because Kalin is more committed to pushing trite metaphor (a dead dog’s collar becomes a symbol for the lack of constancy in these people’s lives) than he is to sketching credible character motivation (history tells us that Barbara wanted to cure Tony’s homosexuality, but her agenda feels vague here). Rather than imitate the postmodernism chic of Far from Heaven or the parodic silliness of Die, Mommie, Die!, Kalin settles for a nondescript style whose sole function is to stay out of Moore’s way. Just as Die, Mommie, Die! is Charles Busch’s stomping ground, the similarly one-note Savage Grace is only special for Moore’s delicious performance, though this great actress does not settle for facile vamping, conveying a chilling combativeness and tragic sense of emotional resignation with nearly every gesture, whether she is exhaling a sinister plume of cigarette smoke or chomping on an olive, bringing glints of life to Kalin’s comatose artistry.
Savage Grace @ the Tribeca Film Festival
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.