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Running with both live and virtual premieres across 12 days in Octobe: 7-18 October 2020

 


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Film In Focus: SAVAGE GRACE

 

Monday, October 29----------In these sangfroid days when nearly everything is acceptable on the big screen, the sight of a mother giving a handjob to her son is still, please excuse me, a little controversial. That scene, that serves as the kind of climax (no pun intended) of SAVAGE GRACE, the long gestating project from American indie director Tom Kalin, may be one of the reasons that the project has taken more than a decade and a half to reach the big screen. However, the London Film Festival did bring it, with all its controversial glory, at a packed Sunday night screening at the Odeon West End.

Kalin made waves on the indie scene in 1993 with his debut feature SWOON, a poetic take on one of America's most sensationalist crimes, the Leopold and Loeb case........the murder of a young boy by two young men, both of whom were also homosexual. The fact that this was Chicago in the 1920s only added to its sensationalism and notoreity. In the real case, the lawyer for the defense was the celebrated trial attorney Clarence Darrow. A famous novel of the 1950s, COMPULSION, was written about the trial, which was filmed in 1959 with Orson Welles elongating his vowels as the crusading attorney.  Kalin took a much more fanciful take on the story, bringing to it a "queer sensibility" that was only alluded to its earlier versions. The killing of the boy was a kind of "love token" between the two men, a proof of their secret covenant. SWOON went on to become a major film festival hit and one of the founding films of what was then called the New Queer Cinema (along with fellow filmmaker Todd Haynes, whose I'M NOT THERE also played the Festival).

SAVAGE GRACE is based on a true story of a murder among American high society ex-pats in Europe which was turned into a non-fiction novel by Natalie Robins and Steven Aronson. It told the lurid tale of the Baekelands, whose money came from the creation of bakelite (an early form of plastic) in the early 20th century. By the time the story begins, it is just after World War II, and the Baekland's heir, a dissoluate man with too much money and too much time on his hands (played by Stephen Dillane) is living with his social climber wife (played by Julianne Moore), who keeps the Baeklands involved and visible in the high society of the old rich (who look down on the Baekelands as parvenu arrivists). Fueled by alcohol, tantalized by adultery and numbed by societal convention, the Baekelands are raising their own heir, a son called Tony, who learns quickly the idol and amoral ways of the rich and famous.

Jumping from New York to Cadaques to London to Paris and spanning the 1950s to the 1970s, the dissolute Baekelands eventually fall apart, with mother and son the ony constant (the father has, in fact, stolen the Spanish girlfriend of his only son to be his mistress). This is a world where social conventions and moral codes simply do not have their place, and the damage this done to all involved is palpable in the excellent acting of Dillane, Moore and the newcomer Eddie Redmayne. It all culminates in two scenes towards the end of the film, when mother and son finally engage in a sex act that seems years in the making, and which ends with a ghastly matricide. The question remains, and Kalin purposefully leaves it wide open, of whether this was a kind of revenge murder by the son of a mother who has crossed a particular moral boundary (even with the son's complicity) or a kind of self-narcissism on the part of the mother, who uses her son (and that is the definitely the word) to bring about an end to her own internal suffering. The scene of Moore's body sprawled on a kitchen floor, with Redmayne eating his Chinese take-out noodles dinner, about says it all.

The film is beautifully shot by cinematpgrapher Juan Miguel Azpiroz and has a tremendous sense of place, as the family flits from European capital to seaside resort with carefree abandon. Since money seems to be no object, the everyday responsibilities of a job or community do not seem a factor. The Baekelands seem to collect lovers the way most of us collect trinkets.....shiny objects that capture the eye and then are discarded. For, in the end, the only love and attention that they really need is one another's........and that is the love that they can never seem to find. Aside from the mother and son reunion, there is a heady mix of sexual mingling, both homosexual and heterosexual, that will certainly bring the film an NC-17 rating when it is finally released.

Christine VachonChristine Vachon"This film has been brewing for almost 15 years", producer Christine Vachon announced to the audience at the q+a session following the London screening. "It probably wins the award for the longest gestation period I've ever had to deal with". The main reason for this seems to have been the proper way to present the lurid story. At one point, the commissioned script told the story from the point of view of the father, but that was eventually thrown out. It was only when screenwriter Howard A. Rodman came on board and decided to view the proceedings from the perspective of the son that it seemed ready to go before the cameras. The film was mostly shot in Barcelona, with Killer Films collaborating with Madrid-based Monfort Producciones, and French sales agent Celluloid Dreams coming on board to sell international territories. SAVAGE GRACE had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, and has since been screened at festivals in Melbourne, Toronto, Rejkavik, and Vienna. The film will have its US Premiere at the AFI Los Angeles Film Festival next month, prior to its US theatrical release by IFC Films later this year. Welcome back, Tom Kalin....we missed your idiosyncratic vision.

Sandy Mandelberger, London FF Dailies Editor

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