Monday, February 8, 2010

I was the steam when hot meets cold...

Tom Kalin is not a director who shies away from controversial subjects. What I like about his films, in fact, is his ability to pull social taboos out into the light and examine them without deliberately trying to be provocative. Perhaps the best example of this is his 2007 feature, Savage Grace.

Savage Grace is, like Swoon, based on a real-life murder case. This one involves the Baekeland family, hiers to the Bakelite plastics fortune. The film chronicles the relationships between Brooks Baekeland, his wife Barbara Daly Baekeland, and their only child, Antony Baekeland, from Tony's infancy through Barbara's death at the hands of her son. A major theme of the film is the rumored incestuous relationship between Barbara and Tony, alleged to be the catalyst that led Tony to kill his mother.

One of the many remarkable things about this film is the way it was shot. As he proved in Swoon, Kalin does period films very thoroughly, shooting each segment as it would have been shot in the time period in which it was set. The progression from a stable camera and classical Hollywood-style invisible editing in the 1940s and 50s to the handheld camera and more adventurous style in the 60s subtly helps to orient the viewer each time the narrative jumps ahead, while making the transition feel seamless by immediately calling to mind the decade that is now being portrayed.

Of course, what many would consider the most remarkable thing about this film is its subject matter. Incest is among the gravest taboos in modern society, foremost on the unwritten list of "Thou Shalt Nots" that governs what topics are addressed in the mainstream media. It's easy to assume that anyone who would make a movie about it is purely looking to capitalize on shock value, but after viewing Savage Grace I can say that this doesn't seem to be the case here. In fact, Kalin seems to take great pains in order to avoid shocking the audience -- anymore than absolutely necessary, that is, because the Baekeland case is shocking in and of itself. Rather than exploiting his characters, Kalin explores them as human beings, flaws and all, and presents a respectful picture of what can go wrong in the human mind that would lead to such tragic events.

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