Neil LaBute is a director known for pulling no punches, and as such has remained a sometimes maligned voice in modern cinema. Yet he always seems to remain true to his vision, whatever that may be. His favourite target seems to be male aggression and the ways in which the entitlement of men can so often boil over into violence. There are moments in “Some Velvet Morning” where we think LaBute is going down this road, but this is on the whole a much more layered and subtle work, a film that works through layers upon layers of deception but never once feels manipulative, because it is the characters deceiving each other, as opposed to the film deceiving us.
Fred (Stanley Tucci) has just left his wife and arrived at the house of his lover, Velvet (Alice Eve), suitcase and holdall in hand. Tucci seems wiry and on edge, like a coiled spring; he’s a corporate type, dressed in a suit, and we later find out he’s a lawyer. Velvet is a vision in red, warm and inviting but with a slight edge to her, and her profession remains unstated through the film; initial speculation as to how she afforded her very large house are compounded at various turns.
As Fred arrives, Velvet is just preparing to leave to meet a friend “for lunch”. Fred circles these words like a shark; what does lunch mean? Who is she meeting? Velvet is tetchy and recalcitrant, but soon the viewer begins to suspect, given very select, drip-fed information, that who she is meeting and what she is doing do not quite square up from scene to scene. And when Fred addresses her as “Velvet”, she explodes in the first genuine display of emotion she gives.
Their relationship from four years before begins to reveal itself to us. We begin to gather that this caustic side to Fred is deeply, deeply unlike him, and that he is usually jovial and good-humoured, and quite endearing. Velvet remains deliberately cipheresque, and from scene to scene she plays with a cocktail of emotions varying from pity, hate, fondness, and a desire to humiliate, all aimed at Fred.
You may note I am being picky with the specifics of the plot, and that’s because this is a rare film that has you guessing from beginning to end. I mean this as literally as I can; this film had me compelled and confounded in equal measure literally from the first shot to the last. This is the kind of film where even stating that there is a revelation of some kind can be classed as a spoiler; there is something that could appropriately be termed an explanation, but not a reasoning.
It all hinges on the performances. The film is actually quite drably made; shot on hazy digital, the white on Fred’s shirt frequently bleeds into the other objects in the frame, especially when stood behind a window. I assume this is a conscious choice to make us focus on the acting, which is superb. Stanley Tucci is an actor people instinctively like (I’ve always found him to have a very warm face), and as with any actor who seems innately likeable, when that is subverted, as it is here, it tends to be very effective and memorable, like Albert Brooks’ turn in Drive.
Alice Eve is trickier to pin down in her performance, and it almost seems like she’s a little overwhelmed; eventually, this makes sense, but the sense that she’s playing a game that only she knows the rules to never leaves the film. Through her movements around him, we begin to make estimated guesses as to the nature of their original relationship, and why he’s returned after four years.
There is an innate tension that builds slowly, and we begin to wonder who is going to explode first; the film is shot largely in real-time, is basically one long conversation, and never leaves Velvet’s apartment (this would make a great play). Because of LaBute’s credentials, we suspect it will be Fred who finally flips, but Velvet’s steeliness seems purposefully deceptive, and…
And, ultimately, the film just needs to be explored for yourself. It is a clever little piece of mastery, and I have tiptoed around the details enough; they lie there waiting to be explored and pondered over, and you should do so.