Savage Grace tells the tale of the Mother of all dysfunctional mother-son relationships. There’s a Proustian quality to its depiction of the idle, supremely unhappy rich.
Tom Kalin’s 2008 film Savage Grace is based on the very creepy true-life story of Barbara Baekeland, an insecure gold digger who marries into money and forms the centre of a severely dysfunctional family. It’s that most rare of things – an American film that attempts to parse the subtle vibrations of class warfare and social exclusion.
In an early scene, Barbara (played by Julianne Moore) is out of her depth at a dinner party with her husband’s friends, and is desperate to be seen as high-class and sophisticated. So she does what every social-climbing arriviste does – drops French phrases into conversation, and randomly references Proust. “Was Proust truly a homosexual? Qu’est-ce que tu penses?” she asks a disinterested literary critic. Cue stunned silence as the critic smiles nervously and fumbles for a response, and everyone else rolls their eyes at her gauche pretensions. Barbara follows it up by having her son Tony (then aged at about 10, I’d guess) read aloud to the dinner guests from the Marquis de Sade’s pornographic novel Justine, presumably to show everyone how avante-garde she is by allowing her children to read “transgressive” literature.
Unfortunately for Barbara, the horrors described in Sade come to life in her own story. Her husband Brooks, the heir to a plastics fortune (his father, Tony’s grandfather, invented Bakelite), is a soulless dilettante, with a fondness for rough anal sex with his wife in hotel rooms. Barbara develops a suffocating co-dependent relationship with Tony, the kind of which all great Oedipal dramas are born. True to form, Tony grows up to be painfully shy and a closeted gay. Brooks sweeps in and carries off Tony’s girlfriend, eventually divorcing Barbara. Mother and son move closer together, and eventually settle in London, where they start to resemble husband and wife. Barbara develops an incestuous relationship with her adult son Tony, in an apparent attempt to “cure” him of his homosexuality. In the film’s hair-raising conclusion, Tony, clearly in the grip of a psychotic breakdown, stabs and kills Barbara in their Chelsea flat. Leaving her on the kitchen floor to die, he calmly uses the telephone to order a delivery of Chinese food.
Unfortunately for Tom, the Proust reference turned on him, like a bad prawn in Tony’s Chinese takeaway meal. Reviewing the film for the New York Times, A. O Scott, compared Savage Grace unfavourably to Proust:
Even as it tries to be suave and nonjudgmental, “Savage Grace” has some of the breathless salaciousness of Barbara’s question about Proust. It lays out the facts of the case with the false nonchalance of a seasoned gossip, professing not to be shocked by anything even as it expects you to be.
Bisexuality! Marijuana! Anal sex! A father who sleeps with his son’s girlfriend! A son who sleeps with his mother’s boyfriend! All of great intrinsic interest, to be sure, but “Savage Grace” doesn’t seem quite sure of how to communicate its own fascination with such doings, whether to convey shock, envy, pity or bemusement. Proust might have known what to do with the Baekelands, but Mr. Kalin and Mr. Rodman [the screenwriter] don’t make much more of them than the mess they apparently already were.
Ouch. A little Proust reference sure goes a long way.