Neil LaBute’s Some Velvet Morning begins as if in embryo, with a blurred bird’s eye image of Velvet (Alice Eve) lounging on a couch listening to Georges Delerue’s soundtrack music for Francois Truffaut’s The Soft Skin. The languorous vision and the lushly mournful melody place the subsequent events of the film — an extended series of very precise agitations — in opposition to this brief, blissful moment. We sense pretty early on that we’ll never go back home to that couch or to Delerue again.
Velvet’s morning is interrupted by the arrival of Fred (Stanley Tucci), a former lover who announces, somewhat proudly, that he’s finally left his wife and is now free to build a life with her. He’s got his bags packed and everything. Velvet, for her part, doesn’t know what to do with him: Their affair was years ago, and it was a complicated one (she was seeing his son at the time), so the very idea that Fred thought he could just show up at her doorstep suggests that there’s something off about him. That becomes increasingly clear as the film goes on, as Velvet and Fred’s standoff winds through valleys of affection, accusation, regret, and menace.
Of course, the rest of us already knew there was something off about Fred; this, after all, is a Neil LaBute film. Not only that, it’s LaBute in full fuck-you mode, the one where he makes small movies about small people who do small but terrible things to one another. But there’s also a physicality to the performances here that lends a new immediacy to the director’s cerebral conceits. This battle of the sexes threatens at various points to become an actual battle, and that hovering sense of physical peril — that these people might not just be cruel but also possibly deadly — brings a fresh darkness to the work. Tucci has often had a tense, coiled quality to his performances, but Eve turns out to be a surprisingly physical actress as well. In heels, she towers over Fred like an Amazon at a couple of points, and that changes their dynamic in subtle but notable ways. One of the joys of watching a film this concentrated is that you’re better tuned to notice little shifts in character that you might miss in something more expansive. (And LaBute is particularly good at these little details, which might be why his recent attempts at bigger, more complicated genre films never quite clicked.)
That said, for all the film’s tightness, it can get a little tedious once the nastiness begins to ratchet up. Watching Fred and Velvet veer between pleasantry and entrapment becomes increasingly hard to watch; you know their story is not headed anywhere good. But the director does have one last trick up his sleeve. I don’t want to say too much about it here — in fact, I’ve probably already said too much – but the film’s final scene somehow manages to send things spinning off into a new direction and yet, when you really think about it, doesn’t fundamentally change anything at all. But it will probably bring another round of accusations hurled in LaBute’s direction — of misogyny, misanthropy, or just plain being an asshole. At any rate, this smallest of films marks a welcome return to the world of interpersonal miniature for the writer-director. I hope he stays here a while.