Master of the Understatement
“People say now that I must have hated them because of what transpired, but everything that happened, happened because of love.” As Antony Baekeland (Eddie Redmayne) introduces himself in Savage Grace, his voiceover is at once seductive and elusive. He’s talking about his parents, who first appear on screen as Tony is a baby, smiling and cooing. His mother, Barbara (Julianne Moore, lovely and scary), carries him away from the camera, her wide skirt and small waist setting the scene in 1946, her pallor and spacious home suggesting her refinement. Her husband Brooks (Stephen Dillane) wears a thin mustache and perpetual scowl, none too pleased as he watches her making dinner plans, as he puts it, “sans permission, sans consultation.”
Based on the Baekelands’ true and infamous story, Tom Kalin’s film, like his wondrous Swoon (1992), considers the dysfunctions produced by wealth and leisure. Here the focus is emphatically familial, though less accusatory than coolly observational. Tony, looking back, describes their differences using gentle, even romantic abstractions. “Papa spoke languages and climbed mountains,” he says, languidly. “He was an adventurer. But Mummy was such a gifted person socially. She was the master of the understatement, an adventuress.” The heir and grandson of the inventor of Bakelite plastic, Brooks extols Leo’s accomplishment by way of worrying that neither he nor his young son will live up this masculine ideal.
The film cuts quickly from Tony’s infancy to his boyhood (“Paris, 1959”) and then to his young adulthood (“Cadaqués, 1967”), illustrating his increasing self-consciousness and frustration over the years. His parents continue to feud, using him as the primary test of one another’s love and patience. A onetime actress (“My mother was almost a movie star”), Barbara is especially fond of histrionics, goading Brooks to misbehave, then punishing him and taking his abuse, sometimes simultaneously. In such moments, the film offers scenes the boy doesn’t see, such that his narration is both enhanced and checked. Tony doesn’t see what happens the night that each storms off separately, in order to end up at the same hotel room, where they engage in an especially discomforting bout of sex, Barbara demanding, Brooks angry, and at last Barbara watching herself as he acts out on her. Still, Tony finds his own way to act out: when his parents return home, he has another beautiful boy sleeping in his bed, post-coital, enraging his father.
For all the emotional fragmentation and payback in turbulent motion here, the film’s imagery remains disconcertingly, even elegantly, remote. Barbara enters Brooks’ hotel room with the camera behind and below her, so that his face, waiting and appalled, serves as the emotional entrance: when she slides onto his lap, forcing her face to his, hungry and furious, his quieter rage is suddenly awful. Her look at herself in the mirror seems, for now, less desperate than triumphant, though she will eventually pull out this moment as a means to attack him, an example of his cruelty and coldness. In the following scene, her son takes up a similar attitude, soaking in a tub when his parents enter, untroubled by their gazes or their upsets. The camera frames his self-absorption neatly, looking on his pale, thin shoulders seeming to float in the tub, his eyes averted.
Repeatedly, Tony listens to different life advice from his parents. “Some people’s mothers, some people’s fathers,” Barbara tells him as a child, “They have to go to an office or a factory or a store, I guess every day, but we are fortunate, because what we do is what we love.” (It’s actually not so clear what she does, except to drive fast and perhaps shop, though the film doesn’t show any scene so mundane as the latter.) Brooks tries harder to “bond,” and so, cannot. Sitting with Tony in an outdoor café, he complains about “women” as a class, but of course he means Barbara: “Always telling us where to put our cocks, where not to, so forth. I don’t need to tell you,” he smiles at his son, “You’ve seen, you know.” Tony hazily defends her against Brooks’ effort to “give you a piece of what fathers tell sons.” Even as he understands her anger, he feels it as well.
And so it’s not a surprise when he brings home a perfect Spanish girl, the frighteningly named Blanca (Elena Anaya), even though he’s clearly more interested in “Black Jake” (Unax Ugalde), sultry and scruffy. Luscious and worldly, Blanca notes the oddness of the family (“All this excitement, all this history”), and dives in, embracing Tony and his father, separately. Tony writes his father, “Later, Mummy said I brought Blanca home like a kitten that had killed its first mouse and laid it at your feet and you, you took it.” the betrayal isn’t exactly acute, as Tony tries both to please his father and sort out his own queer desires. Barbara is easier to satisfy, he finds (“You are an angel,” she murmurs), as they share thoughts on “men.” When Tony announces to Barbara his bewilderment regarding Brooks during a wind-whippy convertible drive, she sighs, “I’ve long since given up trying to understand Brooks… men do what men do.” Tony reverts to one of his favorite fantasies, born of his discovery that Leonardo da Vinci used to write backwards. “Mummy,” he says, “I think [Papa’s] writing us a letter. I think he’s writing us a letter but in another alphabet, in Baekeland writing no one else can read.”
The film doesn’t look into Tony’s own writing (though he mentions it, late). It focuses now on his efforts to please his Mummy, with both abject affection and sexual compliance. When her walker, Sam (Hugh Dancy), climbs into their very messy lives, they have no where to go but down. Certainly, much has been made in lurid reports of Barbara and Tony’s incestuous relationship, as a way to explain and demonize them both, to set them apart from the rest of us and make a simplifying moral sense of the violence that finished them. Savage Grace does not do either. It shows Tony and Barbara’s (and to a lesser extent, Brooks’) slide in and out of pathologies, but it doesn’t sensationalize or even much pry into possible motives. It’s not that the rich are “different,” as in Fitzgerald’s famous formulation, but rather that they are too like “you and me,” only able to act on desires and fears in ways that we don’t (or can’t, or won’t) fathom.
“Leo once said,” Tony recalls as he ponders his own unhappiness, “‘One of the uses of money is that it allows us not to live with the consequences of our mistakes. But I feel that in this, Leo was wrong.” The film suggests he was and wasn’t, that Tony’s isolation and fury made him small in the face of consequences that he lived with daily.