it’s strictly a family affair

I have not a thing to say about the longstanding what’s Cocteau?/what’s Melville? debate that continues to haunt Les Enfants Terribles (Jean-Pierre Melville, France,1950) a half a century after the fact, other than venture that the push/pull between these two unique artistic visions can be blamed for the somewhat uneven quality of the film and the deep sense of unease that seems to churn beneath its highly polished surface.

The first act is the most compelling as it introduces the enclosed universe of Elisabeth and Paul and explores the rules of their private little games; once the film stumbles outside the tight confines of their room the film seems to constantly threaten to lapse into prim qualité française dullness.  But the magnetic draw of intimate—perhaps even quasi-erotic—spaces prove too strong, and once the siblings (plus two more) reintroduce themselves into a facsimile of their old room the film’s lurid, potent poetry blossoms once again, and tragedy quickly, inevitably follows.  There are a number of missteps, such as the duel casting of Renée Cosima in the role of both male and female love interest never functions in any kind of interesting way.  But in the end Nicole Stéphane’s tour-de-force performance contains a propulsive force all its own, pushing and pulling everything in her wake according to her violently capricious whims, and ultimately nothing—not even the film itself—dares stand in her way.

What to make of Savage Grace (Tom Kalin, USA, 2008)?  A haunting, prickly film, though not necessarily because of (or perhaps in spite of) its controversial subject matter.  The film is being sold as a biopic of the infamous Barbara Daly Baekeland, murdered by her only son, the sole heir to the immense Bakelite plastics fortune; as the alternately fragile and monstrous central character, Julianne Moore received almost uniformly rave reviews.  To be sure, she gives a ferocious performance, and takes her place alongside the Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest mode (but then, a mother offering herself as a “cure” for her son’s homosexuality is a far, far cry from wire hangers, however much they sting).

Days later I’m still struggling to discover a way to grasp onto the sheer oddity of the film, if only because it seems so relentlessly off-centered—ultimately it’s not Moore’s film, but an unexpectedly poignant portrait of the son she both nurtured and/or destroyed, played with impressive subtlety by the up-and-coming Eddie Redmayne.  Further emphasizing the off-kilter aura is the giant fragments of narrative left completely untouched as the film flits from decade to decade, location to location; eventually the narrative logic seems to begin entering the realm of mirages and dreamscapes instead of “objective facts,” festering and decaying in its luscious, late-Visconti-like interiors and sunny, potentially hazardous beachside escapes.  Finally a point is reached that feels like we have to deduce for ourselves what the hell happened in this exceedingly disturbing set of life stories, but then, that could very well be the point—without the presence of Oedipus’s gods cruelly ordaining everything from afar, can such circumstances be explained?

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