Where love has gone

It would appear that Savage Grace is American writer-director Tom Kalin’s first feature since his brilliant Swoon, a full 15 years ago.

Take yourself back a decade and a half, and Swoon was a key picture in what was dubbed the New Queer Cinema, meaning—broadly—movies dealing with gay and lesbian lives and issues, but without the activist necessity to present positive role models.

Hence Swoon, which, apart from being swooningly beautiful to look at, revisited the Leopold-Loeb case that scandalised the United States in the 1920s and was turned into a play and then into Hitchcock’s Rope. The story is this: two crypto-fags, going as “supermen” à la Nietzsche, murder a boy. So? Is homosexuality a pathology that leads to other crimes such as homicide? Is it like a sort of gateway drug, a kind of dagga to the heroin of murder?

Obviously, gay and lesbian activists needed to fight the idea that homosexuality per se is pathological—even though that was in fact a step up from the previous conception of it as an evil that required burning at the stake.
Yet after a series of affirmative but often dull works of art trying to further the cause of tolerance, the New Queer Cinema began to look in complicated ways at the pathological construction of alternative sexualities, and to ask questions about how “normal” we really want to be anyway. For more, see also Poison by Todd Haynes and The Living End by Gregg Araki.

Now, wonderfully, Kalin is back—and with another excellent piece of work. Savage Grace, showing at the Out in Africa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (along with the other two movies under review), is, like Swoon, based on a true story. In this case it’s about the desperate lives of the heirs to the bakelite fortune. Bakelite was “the first plastic made from synthetic components”, as Wikipedia helpfully informs us. (It also notes that the substance’s official name is olyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride. Sing a song about that, Mary Poppins.)

It’s appropriate that these gilded, unhappy people, the Baekelands, should have their idleness subsidised by the forerunner of the plastics that have subsequently revolutionised the lives of humans in ways we barely even think about. It’s like a symbol of the insane explosion of technology, and along with it human destructiveness, in the 20th century.

In Savage Grace, the Baekelands are dad Brooks (Stephen Dillane), mom Barbara (Julianne Moore) and son Tony (played at first by Barney Clark and, later, by Eddie Redmayne, who in fact has nearly as much of a red mane as Moore). As might be expected, Moore gives a powerhouse performance—though “powerhouse” makes it sound loud and flashy, when in fact as Barbara Baekeland she’s cool, elegant, fragile, sensitive and utterly terrifying.

Redmayne is excellent, too, matching Moore all the way as this tortuous mother-son drama plays itself out. His face seems ready-made for vulnerability, and it offers a smile of transcendent beauty, yet there’s also something about it of the dog who’s been kicked and kicked into submission. Or so it seems when it’s cowering.

Savage Grace is both easy and hard to watch. It’s beautifully made, the serene beauty of its visuals pulling against the increasingly savage emotional trauma of the plot. You can barely look, but nor can you tear your eyes away.

There are grounds for objection in some respects, and I don’t mean the parts that will make audiences squirm. The ending, particularly, seemed to me to arrive too suddenly and without sufficient development, and there are moments where the storyteller’s gaze is curiously averted; it’s curious because that gaze is so unflinching elsewhere. Still, Savage Grace is a piece of work that makes most—no, all—of the dramas I’ve seen this year on the main movie circuit look like cowardly custard, and watered-down custard at that.

There’s more strong medicine at the festival in the form of 25c Preview and Saturno Contro. The stylistic contrast between them validates each polar approach. The former is a grungy, hand-held, vérité-style portrait of drugs, rentboys, abuse and the fugitive kind on the streets of San Francisco. The latter is a classically elegant, well-constructed ensemble piece about sophisticated, artistic, well-dressed Europeans.

No scriptwriter credit is given for 25c Preview; it was largely improvised by its lead actors, Christopher Anderson and Dorian Brockington. This approach is in the tradition of the great Andy Warhol-produced and Paul Morrissey-directed trilogy of the 1970s, Heat, Flesh and Trash (that’s in ideal viewing order, by the way), and it contributes immensely to the feel of real life being caught on the hoof. In terms of “gritty-and-dark”, it makes The Dark Knight look like a 1940s musical. The subject matter is not light, but at the story’s heart is a touching friendship between two men, one of whom happens to be black and the other white.

Turkish-Italian writer-director Ferzan Ozpetek’s Saturno Contro (translated as Saturn in Opposition, referring to the planet) feels like a direct follow-up to his successful The Ignorant Fairies, and features several of the same actors. But it takes the exploration of community further—and, in any case, this is an endlessly renewable genre because it’s about the specificities of particular human lives. This is a lovely, moving film about love, hate, sex, fidelity, betrayal, life and death — in a word, emotion.

The Out in Africa Festival runs in Johannesburg at Nu Metro Killarney until September 14 and in Cape Town at Nu Metro V&A Waterfront until September 21

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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