In the first scene of Tom Kalin’s Savage Grace the audience is immediately introduced to the perverse family dynamic that pervades the Baekeland family; Brooks, Barbara and Anthony Baekeland.
We see Tony as a baby, we see Barbara indulgently fussing over her son and we see the violence embedded in words that are pushed and pulled between Barbara and her husband Brooks.
A grown up ‘Tony’, as he is referred to through most of the movie, chimes in with an opening narration that then continues throughout the film.
He says of his father and mother “He was cold and dark, she was warm and light and I was middle-toney. I was the steam when hot meets cold.”
This, one soon comes to realize, is a delusional statement and an attempt to rationalize and make order out of the destructive family life that Tony must grow up in.
As flowery and metaphoric as Tony’s narration is, many of his statements can be translated into a rationalization and an attempt to make life seem cohesive.
When hot meets cold steam is what melds everything together so wonderfully.
Savage Grace tells the true story of Tony Baekeland and the life that eventually led him to imprisonment for the murder of his mother. Grandson of Leo Baekeland, the inventor of Bakelite plastics, and heir to this family fortune Tony grows up flitting around Europe, inevitably becoming his mother’s companion and security blanket.
Kalin pulls us through Tony’s narrative giving the viewer the impression that Tony is the sanest of the three. As we step through each scene and as the narrative progresses the changes in Tony’s character are subtly twisted into the narcissistic manipulative individual he becomes; a mirror of his mother.
Barbara Baekeland, played by Julianne Moore, is the most compelling of the three characters. She is a woman of extremes and a dramatist. Every pronouncement is in relation to her-self and every social event is an opportunity to disrupt the familiar dynamic, pulling everyone from their roots and placing the attention on her.
Barbara is obsessed with her son’s homosexuality and through incestuous activity is determined to rid her son of his sexual orientation. Tony grows up being smothered by his mother as she uses him as a comfort to forget about her disconnected loveless relationships. He has no control around her and is the only one to loyally stick by her side.
Brooks is a cold and detached character. He has obviously given up on Barbara and is un-capable of thwarting her impulse to control their son and so isolates himself from them both. Eventually he coolly takes off with Blanca; a girlfriend or lover that Tony has brought home to meet the family.
Symbolism and symbols can be taken and interpreted in so many ways, but one clear symbol that can not be missed by anyone who has watched this film is the dog collar that Tony continually makes reference to. The collar once belonged to Giotto, a dog that we never see, because that expanse of time in Tony’s life was skipped over in the film. Giotto, who died when Tony was young, seems to have been one of his only authentic sources of love. Giotto’s collar is referenced in letters to Tony’s father and is an attachment that gives Tony comfort right into adulthood.
The screenplay, written by Howard A. Rodman, is the most striking element of this Shakespearean like tragedy. Its execution is precise, jabbing and laced with imagery. I’m not sure how accurate the dialogue is to the real life drama of the Baekelands but it is captivating and I could imagine a group of dysfunctional aristocrats speaking in this flowery detached text.
Given the subject matter to work with and the profoundly conflicted characters I think Kalin could have been a lot more adventurous, cinematographically.
The film was neither critical nor loving of its characters. It’s difficult for us to understand the personalities. The camera throws us back and disassociated symbols, like the three way mirror that sits on the end of the bath, cuts us out of any personal reflective space. Even Tony’s narration fails to give the viewer any true insight into motivation and emotion.
Performances and an incredible screenplay is enough to pull one through this story as an overwhelmed voyeur. Every single scene is fraught with a violent sexual tension and for that reason it is impossible to look away. The material in this story is strong and the intimate sounds of tea pouring, of the kisses passed between Tony and his lovers and of Mrs. Barbara Baekeland sucking on her cigarette grips its audience until the chilling end.