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Some Velvet Morning

December 10, 2013
Some Velvet Morning

I’ve long been a fan of the movies that Neil LaBute adapts from his plays. In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, and The Shape of Things all show off his command of dialogue, characters, and relationships, and use them to probe into some of the shadowy, uncomfortable spaces of the human soul. In this, Some Velvet Morning is a welcome return to form.

Indeed, it’s easily the darkest, most disturbing of LaBute’s plays-turned-movies. The film — and possibly any review of the film — should come with a trigger warning: anyone who has experienced an abusive relationship or a sexual assault may do well to avoid this one. If you want to take your chances, watch it on-demand or on DVD, where you can at any point stop and walk away until you feel ready to return. This should not be taken as any sort of slam against the film; rather, it’s a testimony to the power both of LaBute’s script and of the performances delivered by Alice Eve and Stanley Tucci.

Some Velvet Morning is also the sparest of LaBute’s films, with all the action taking place within a single townhouse, in basically real time. A woman (Eve) is listening to music on her sofa: a selection from Truffaut’s La peau douceThe Soft Skin — about an affair that ends badly. The doorbell rings. A man (Tucci) is at the door, loaded with baggage. He says he’s left his wife; it seems to take a while to dawn on the woman that he intends to stay with her.

The man calls the woman “Velvet”, though she insists that she “isn’t that person anymore”. The woman calls the man “Fred”, and we wonder if maybe that’s just as much of a pseudonym. They know each other; they have a history together. It comes out that Velvet is a high-priced prostitute, and Fred a former client. They both had fallen for each other, but things got out of hand. They’d met through Fred’s son, with whom she claims to have a continuing friendship. And then something happened that led to Velvet insisting that Fred stay away, which he has for the last few years, but now he’s back and determined to have his way.

The relationship is clearly abusive, and the breakup angry and hateful, if not physically violent. Velvet is scared of Fred now, but feels she cannot simply call the police lest he expose her “unearned” income. And there are further layers of complication; some part of her does still care for him, while another part works out how to placate him into leaving of his own accord.

The film is an acting masterpiece, with Tucci and Eve diving together into some deep, scary places. Tucci’s performance is the more obvious; he portrays the abuser’s manner with a disturbing perfection. It’s not just in his rages and the way he breaks a trinket to remind her of his physical strength, but in the way he uses space to control and manipulate her movements. It’s his mercurial swings from angry recriminations to playful joking, but with a shark’s grin to remind us what’s behind the smiling face. Tucci is not a large or imposing man by nature, but he feels here like a tightly-coiled spring: compact but powerful.

Eve’s performance is subtler; Velvet lives in the quieter spaces between Fred’s outsize bluster. Eve manages to compose her face and body on at least two levels. Velvet remains superficially pleasant and deferential to placate Fred’s temper, but we can see the fear in her eyes, feel the shake in her stride, and hear the hitch in her voice as her mind races to try and stay one step ahead of this man’s fists for as long as she can. She protects her space as vigilantly as he invades it, even when in a completely separate room. We see her anger leak out one moment, and watch her quickly backtrack the next. She throws up verbal smoke to distract and allow herself a moment’s freedom while he’s off his guard. At every point she wonders if this will be what sets him off, or sends him on his way.

True to LaBute’s form, Some Velvet Morning defies simple responses, especially about Velvet. He shows a deftness in writing her character, both as a victim of abuse, and as a sex worker, in which role she is anything but a passive victim. And even when it seems apparent where this story is heading you are both right and wrong. Just this one encounter between Fred and Velvet would be raw and powerful enough to spawn hours of conversation, but everything is more complicated than it ever appears. There are always new layers to unpack, right down to the last seconds of the story.

And the complications and resonances go deep into the writing. The name itself calls back to one of those cowboy-psychedelic duets between Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra duets like “Summer Wine” that always felt so oddly imbalanced. In that song, Sinatra croons, “flowers are the things we know; secrets are the things we grow / learn from us very much; look at us but do not touch”, in character as “Phaedra”. And Phaedra, of course, was the second wife of Theseus, who fell in love with his first wife’s son. Like La peau douce, Phaedra’s affair didn’t end very well either. The whole text of the play is just as delicately balanced as all these subtextual references, sliding back and forth between the two characters, hanging just inside the bounds of control until it finally tips over into disaster.

It’s not a movie for everyone to watch, and I have nothing but compassion towards those for whom this is just too much to endure. But those who choose to watch will have a lot to think about by the time the credits roll to the now-ominous sound of the Turtles’ “Happy Together”.

Worth It: a tough call. As a movie, it’s amazingly well-done. But it’s a hard one to endure, even without a history of abuse. If you feel up to watching, I highly recommend it.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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