“I was eating a tomato at teatime the other day and it occurred to me that mummy is not dead at all, just very, very mysterious.” Tony Baekland.
Based on the book by Natalie Robins, Savage Grace is a deeply disturbing, psychologically-charged film about Barbara Baekland (played by Julianne Moore), and her only son, Tony (played by Eddie Redmayne). Beginning with a mother’s birth to her beloved child and following their years together, which leads to a tragic ending, this true story is about a narcissistic woman from the wrong side of the tracks who marries Brooks, the heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune. Still, she continues to drown in fantasy despite the hopes that money is enough to save her. More specifically, Savage Grace explores the complexities involved in the subconscious motives that push Barbara to emotionally, mentally, and sexually abuse her son and the devastating affects that it has on both of them.
Taking on this complex project was screenwriter Howard A. Rodman and director Tom Kalin (Swoon), who push this story way past a filmmakers usual boundaries just as the characters themselves have done in everyday life. Thus, the end result is raw, painful yet highly intriguing, making Savage Grace a remarkable film (if you are into the psychological abnormalities that can drive a human being) without sugarcoating the story to tone down the nature of the beast.
Kalin was initially attracted to the book also titled Savage Grace. He described it as “an amazing series of interviews with people who knew all the characters including some interviews with Brooks.
“There were also excerpts from Barbara’s letters and Tony’s diaries,” added Kalin. “And people’s opinions were so contradictory, which was fascinating. While some referred to Barbara as the most “beautiful, charismatic woman,” others said things like, “I knew her at 25-years-old and I knew she’d be in trouble by the time she was 40-years-old.”
Describing this film as an “appalling, tabloid-type story” but also with “a greater dramatic substance of weight,” Kalin stated that the rawness of Savage Grace is credited to the actors.
“I think actors, especially ambitious, interesting actors are drawn to complicated roles,” explained Kalin. “Julianne has made a career of picking all different kinds of parts. Her character, Barbara, is a really compelling character. She’s almost larger than life on page.
“Julianne was interested in what I was interested in. She had to try and find a way to see this person as human. How do you bring empathy to the process of seeing this person who is narcissistic and very destructive?
“Actors have to be able to not judge the characters,” Kalin added. “In this case, Julianne does have to try and identify with Barbara and of course, she doesn’t, how could you?
“Therefore, actors, in my opinion, don’t always have to become the characters they play emotionally, psychologically, physically… I think it’s just about finding those little, teeny moments that are human, that are recognizable, and pulling those pieces out.”
Transitioning from Tony’s childhood where, for some obscure reason, his mother’s odd dynamic of “too much attention, too little attention” created a confident and secure boy, he grew into a very insecure adult who was confused about his own identity.
“There were two parts of the film,” said Kalin. “The main part that the film doesn’t address in a clinical sort of way was that Tony was suffering from some kind of mental illness. We never see a scene with a psychiatrist or it’s not really explained what’s happening. It’s expressed in the performance. It’s expressed visually in the world of the film that Tony is increasingly losing touch with reality.”
And while the film has a dark undertone that seductively tickles our curiosity, unless viewers are familiar with this American tragedy, the abrupt and life-changing result from Barbara and Tony’s twisted tango leaves you without words.
“We shot the end of the film in sequence as it happens in the movie,” said Kalin. “There was this terrible feeling of gravity as these two people got to this place together. The intention of the film isn’t to be shocking or disgusting, but rather to look closely at the behavior of those two people [Barbara and Tony] and to try and show it in a truthful way. And what the actors brought to the characters was just amazing.”
When trying to dissect the characters’ motives, Kalin suggested that to make sense of this story, it’s best to, “start from the end and work your way backwards.”
“Barbara provokes him [Tony],” explained Kalin, “by this kind of relationship that involves an emotional and eventual sexual aspect, leading Tony to a place where he mentally snaps.
Tony’s father, Brooks, is played by Stephen Dillane, another actor Kalin said he always wanted to work with. Insecure about his own inner feelings of self-loathing, Brooks’ wife reiterates those feelings by abusing him, emotionally. Ironically, in return, she allows him to abuse her via acts of sexual demoralization. It is, however, when Brooks betrays both Barbara and Tony that things between mother and son reach a new level, which ultimately initiates their beginning of the end, a point of no return, if you will.
The climactic scene involving a strong, sexually deviant act between a mom and her child and what happens next has stirred up mixed reactions at film festivals.
“It’s strong material and I’ve had a wide range of reactions,” stated Kalin. “Some embrace it, thinking it’s bold and brave. Other people disliked it because they were shocked by it; bored by it.
“More than any other film I’ve worked on, I had a divided reaction. That’s what happens when you are dealing with material that consists of very strong cultural and societal taboos.
“I got emails saying, ‘I didn’t like your film but I thought about it for days afterwards.’ And to me, that’s a powerful part of making a movie.”
Having shot the film six days a week for five weeks, Kalin’s own discomfort while shooting the final scenes comes across in his work.
“For very sad reasons, human beings, unfortunately, can do really tragic things to each other and these two people went as far out on a limb as you can go,” Kalin said.
Through his incredibly gifted cast, Kalin took Savage Grace and was able to peel back its onion, layer by layer, to reveal what happens when inner demons collide.
“Like I said earlier, it’s all about the actors,” Kalin explained. “The center of what I do is working with actors. That is what is exciting and rewarding. Working with them is the core of every film because in the most literal sense, they are the flesh and blood of the movie. They are what bring the film to life.”
Source by Megan Rellahan