The Baekeland family had it all: money, murder, incest — a nightmare domestic trifecta. Barbara Baekeland was a beautiful one-time model and sort-of actress. She had married up from her modest Boston origins, securing a union with the brilliant and handsome Brooks Baekeland, heir to an enormous plastics fortune. Their son, Tony, was similarly brilliant, but troubled (in fact, schizophrenic, as it turned out). Rejected by his emotionally remote father, Tony bonded inseparably with his boozy, social-climbing mother, who took pictures of him naked in the bathtub and encouraged him to read passages from the Marquis de Sade to startled party guests.
Unburdened by any need to work, the Baekelands were dedicated expatriates, traipsing endlessly from London to Paris to various luxury accommodations in Italy, Spain and Switzerland, dragging their son along. Eventually, it became clear that Tony was gay, a fact that disgusted his father. Barbara attempted to reorient her son, bringing in young women to go to bed with him. When these efforts failed, she began having sex with Tony herself. One afternoon in November of 1972, at their home of the moment in London, Tony stabbed Barbara through the heart with a kitchen knife. When police arrived, he was on the phone ordering Chinese take-out.
This horrific narrative was recounted in numbing detail in 1985, in a nearly 500-page oral history called "Savage Grace: The True Story of a Doomed Family," by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson. In adapting that book into a 97-minute movie, director Tom Kalin has discarded all but the most telling moments. We see Barbara (Julianne Moore) and Brooks (Stephen Dillane) in New York in 1946, dressing for dinner at the Stork Club. Barbara is drinking and chattering and clearly getting on her icy husband's nerves, as is their squalling infant son. We see them in the Spanish resort of Cadaques in 1967, where the now-teenaged Tony (Eddie Redmayne) is having a tentative heterosexual encounter with a girl named Blanca (Elena Anaya). When he brings Blanca home to meet his parents ("like a kitten that has killed his first mouse and laid it at your feet," Barbara says), his father immediately takes an interest in the girl, and soon runs off with her. Later, when Tony finds his mother in bed with a bisexual companion named Sam (Hugh Dancy), he climbs under the covers with them. In Paris the following year, Barbara — her loveless marriage now over — slashes her wrists in despair, and a short while afterward, in one of the film's eeriest images, we see Tony tenderly smoothing ointment over her stitches.
The movie ends in London, of course, where Barbara seduces her son for the first time, on a living-room sofa. The scene is shot with a cool, unblinking objectivity that's harrowing. Before long, during a furious argument over the missing collar of a long-dead pet dog, we see the murder, which is depicted in a virtuoso sequence of smothered emotional release.
Julianne Moore dives into her role with fearless abandon, unleashing gales of foul-mouthed rage and shameless erotic calculation in her portrayal of a woman who's both unusually intelligent and pathetic. And Eddie Redmayne, with his fleshy lips and carefully flat delivery, is a perfect foil — Barbara's helpless partner in a fatal family dance. Director Kalin, best-known for his only previous feature, the 1992 film "Swoon," bathes much of the picture in gorgeous Mediterranean light (it was partly shot on the Costa Brava), a ravishing visual strategy for a story of such dark struggle.
In the aftermath of Barbara's 1972 murder, the real Tony Baekeland was sent to Broadmoor, an English hospital-prison for the criminally insane. He was released in 1980, and returned to New York to live with his maternal grandmother, whom he soon also attacked and stabbed. (She survived.) He was then imprisoned on Rikers Island, where in March of 1981 he committed suicide by suffocating himself with a plastic bag. In reviewing "Savage Grace," the book, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., who moved in some of the same social circles as the Baekelands, called it, unsurprisingly, "a story of spectacular decadence." He also observed, more incisively, that "seldom has there been so devastating an exposure of the consequences, for the most sophisticated people, of failure in the simplest duties of love."
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