Now on DVD and streaming, Neil LaBute’s film Some Velvet Morning (2013) is in many ways itself a duet, nodding to Jim Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra’s psychedelic 1967 record by the same name, which makes its own nods to mythology’s Phaedra – though LaBute is far less enigmatic if not less provocative. Both could easily share The Telegraph’s 2003 assessment of the song: “darkly sexual.” In that light, the brightness of the film may be ironic, but its sexual tensions benefit from LaBute’s development as a playwright and filmmaker since In the Company of Men.
In fact, some critics have compared Some Velvet Morning to that early film, considering it a return to form. I’d suggest that Some Velvet Morning is not so much a return as it is forward growth. Though his works’ sexual politics remain pretty much the same, his characters have become more complex and the women more dimensional. Which makes the film’s final confirmation that the man has been the one in control all along all the more disturbing (if not relatively consistent). No, I’m not talking about that scene, I’m talking about the last shot. While the last scene may contextualize all that has come before, the last shot raises the possibility that she is the one hopelessly in love, not the other way around. Despite her apparent assertiveness and tropes of empowerment – or being liberated, in 60s/70s lingo – he is (and has been) the one holding all the cards, in fact rigging the game.
Okay, here’s the thing. You might not agree. But that’s at the heart of LaBute’s work: a provocation to discuss. To be drawn in and repulsed simultaneously, to find dialogue at times awkward and other times fluid, to be unable to stop thinking about the events and struggling to wrangle our own feelings about them.
So what is the film about? On its surface, it’s about an unexpected intrusion – Fred shows up on the doorstep of Velvet, assuming that he can stay if not actually just move right in. They have a history, you see. But exactly what that history is gets turned over several times, and the beauty is that the performances ultimately lend credence to any or all of them. Stanley Tucci and Alice Eve are remarkable, the only two people on the screen – no, this not based on a play, but like many of his films it could be, maximizing a claustrophobic intimacy that muddies love and is less about cinema and more about talking.
Tucci as Fred is by turns awkward, sexy, sweet, wounded and dangerous. Velvet is more enigmatic, as LaBute’s women tend to be, but this is ultimately Velvet’s story, and Eve brings to her story a vulnerability, bravado and honesty despite a sense that Velvet wears her heart on her sleeve. That’s not to say the gender roles aren’t problematic, and there are implications in the final scene that don’t hold much hope for the state of things, particularly men, even nice ones. But they are more nuanced than In the Company of Men or even The Shape of Things. Watching Tucci and Eve work, it’s hard not to think of the unusual duet structure of the ’60s pop song, Hazelwood’s and Sinatra’s individual parts almost belonging to different songs and undoubtedly from differing worlds. So it is with Tucci and Eve and the duet LaBute has created for them.
After watching the film, I found myself thinking about several moments, such as Velvet standing at the front entryway, as Fred eagerly awaits outside. How unexpected his arrival is becomes a point for debate as the film progresses, but after all is said and done, our first assumptions may be the most accurate. The opening dialogue, as awkward as it can seem, and the confusion with the suitcases would seem to underscore this. The other moment that gives me pause is when Fred confesses his love, as Velvet’s tears slide down her face. Can it really be that she does not love him, as Fred accuses and she states? I go back to the final shot.
For all the talk about hate, this is a film about love. But love is not the same as obsession, and perhaps that is the most revealing aspect to the sexual politics here. Fred is obsessed, but even though he presents himself as the victim – the one who has loved and the one who has been wronged – who ultimately gets hurt?