Growing up in the South, there wasn’t a lot of talk about feminism, a word that you’d typically only hear pejoratively, so the first time I’d ever heard the word “misogyny,” it was in 1997 and directed at Neil LaBute after his debut film, In the Company of Men. For those who haven’t seen it, Men was also Aaron Eckhart’s break-out role, and in the movie, he plays a hateful, douchebag-bro who charms a deaf woman into falling in love with him for one reason: To break her hurt. For kicks. Wouldn’t it be hilarious to destroy a handicapped woman’s soul and watch her unravel?
The film launched the careers of LaBute and Eckhart, and I found the dark comedy absolutely fascinating, elevating LaBute into one of my favorite directors. Since then, I’ve seen most of LaBute’s film work (he’s also a very successful and accomplished playwright), although it’s been trending downwards in recent years (I did like his remake of Death at a Funeral). His most interesting projects, however, continue to revolve around prickly misogynists. In his latest, Some Velvet Morning, LaBute returns to that character type again with a marvelously awful Stanley Tucci character, and once again, I was inexplicably enthralled with the result.
Since watching the film, I’ve been trying to unpack what it is about these vile, sexist, emotionally and verbally abusive men that fascinates me, and I can’t quite place my finger on it. I’m not alone in this: In the Company of Men garnered four Independent Spirit nominations (and two wins) in 1998 and just this year, LaBute was just recently named one of the winners of American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Arts and Letters Awards in Literature. He’s a critically appreciated guy, though I don’t quite understand why.
It’s not that I like or sympathize with these characters (obviously), or in any way relate to them. Mostly, I find them repulsive. I’m interested in the way that LaBute explores them, though I haven’t been able to get a beat on whether the director himself harbors any of these feelings, or if most of his oeuvre is an indictment of them. Maybe the appeal of his films, in fact, is in trying to use his body of work to figure out Neil LaBute, and maybe the fact that he’s a Mormon — or was until he was kicked out of the Mormon church after writing a play in which his Mormon characters were portrayed as murderers — is wrapped up in this elusive intrigue. Maybe we’re just fascinated with the darkness of his misanthropes, and the fact that they are often misogynists is purely coincidental. I don’t know. I can’t figure it out.
Some Velvet Morning doesn’t bring me any closer to epiphany. It is a small, interesting character study of another misogynist, Fred (Tucci) and his former lover, Velvet (Alice Eve), a high-end escort with whom Fred had a lengthy affair four years prior to the event in the film. I say “event” because Some Velvet Morning is one lengthy conversation/argument between Fred and Velvet that takes place in Velvet’s house over the course of an hour and a half on the day that Fred left his wife for her. The two had not spoken in the four years since they broke off the affair, and Fred returns not only to find answers, but to perhaps rekindle their relationship (or “get his cock sucked”), something with which Velvet seemingly has no initial interest.
There are other obstacles, however, such as the fact that one of Velvet’s clients is Fred’s son, and also the fact that the two’s passion for each other runs incredibly dark. Fred, in this argument, is crass, manipulative, and abusive, both verbally at first, and physically later on. Velvet is both receptive and fearful. She loves him one minute, hates him the next, and that’s the way the conversation plays out: He charms her to tears, then he screams at her for fucking other men.
But there’s a twist in the film that turns everything on its head and forces us to re-examine the entire film again in a way that’s designed to ask us what is so fascinating about terrible men, and is there strength in it? What might draw an attractive woman with boundless prospects to a cruel, fearful monster, instead of a nice guy who otherwise has all of the same physical attributes and financial prospects?
I don’t know, and I still can’t unpack it, but Some Velvet Morning — which features terrific performances from both leads — asks some tough questions, the leading ones of which are: What is it about this horrible, fucked-up relationship that beckons you to watch, why can’t you look away, and why is this disgusting man so captivating?