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07.02.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Monfort Productions
The Lady In Red : Julianne Moore's mom redefines dysfunctional in 'Savage Grace.'

Review: Savage Grace

Julianne Moore can't save 'Savage Grace' from sleaze.

By Richard von Busack


Without its tell-tale mantle of cultural importance, what we think of as "sleaze" may not even really exist. It is one thing to have a healthy curiosity about the details of other people's sex lives, an interest that increases with the size of their bank accounts. Anyone would want to know that Ms. Spears has joined the Manson family; sleaze begins when you quote unnamed sources in her circle who are concerned about the effect this born-again Mansonism will have on her children's mental health. Sleaze always overreaches itself. Savage Grace reveals itself as sleaze the minute director Tom Kalin (Swoon) starts to turn on the swankness. If it weren't for the too-plain lighting, Julianne Moore might have a chance to go shadowy and retro in the real-life history of a solipsist named Barbara Baekeland. Baekeland was a starlet-turned-concubine, a wastrel who steadily worsened as she graduated from evening gowns to kaftans. Eventually, she achieved violent death at the hands of her son, Anthony, in the early 1970s.

In 1946, Baekeland prepares to ditch infant Tony (Barney Clark) for the evening in order to go to the Stork Club. Unwillingly escorting his wife is Brooks (Stephen Dillane), heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune. Outward calm prevails until Barbara scores the first point, discussing her husband's archeological expeditions in Peru. These journeys apparently go far beyond the bush: "Give him a dirt road, and he'll go up it," Barbara quips crisply. The mutual scorn increases over the years. Barbara's habit of picking up men for casual sex complicates the frail balance. Anthony (Eddie Redmayne) grows up to be a French schoolboy who likes to take baths with other boys. Since his French is better than his mother's, he can witness the way Barbara is treated as the Duchess of Gauche. As she lingers in Europe, she manifests more artsiness (artsiness is also essential to sleaze).

The full-grown Anthony (Eddie Redmayne) smokes hash on the beach with wicked Spanish boys. The moment closest to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls comes when we see a wardrobe demonstration of Eurotrash wear on the cusp of the 1970s: leather vests with special holsters for bricks of hashish, topped out with a One Million Years B.C.-style tattered squirrel-skin wrap. Even after watching his date dress up so, Tony never really cops to his own inverted sexuality. After his father scoops up his nongirlfriend, Tony must endure a thorough course of Barbara's loco-parenting, her suicide attempts and opiated suppositories. I'm not sure there's been anything this boom-lowering since Mommy Dearest. Unfortunately, the focus here is not the scintillation of camp but a somber exploration of how it got so ugly for some real beautiful people. Savage Grace is the "My mom made me a homosexual" movie par excellence, with the twist being that she dies for trying to unmake him. The fim is neither savage nor graceful. Moore does her best, and keeps the film just on the other side of the line of unwatchability, despite Kalin's deadly seriousness. Neither the ecstasy of loathing nor the glint of lunacy enlivens this film.


Movie Times SAVAGE GRACE (Unrated; 97 min.), directed by Tom Kalin, written by Howard A. Rodman, from the book by Natalie Robins and Steven Aronson, photographed by Juan Miguel Azpiroz and starring Julianne Moore, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.


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