Director: Micheal Eastman
Writer: Micheal Eastman
Cast: Sasha Andreev, Maggie Bearmon Pistner
Running time: 30mins
Over the course of the last century, red velvet cake has spread from the South of the US to become one of the most inescapably popular baked goods in the Western world. It is also one of the most overrated.
A chocolate layer cake, layered with ‘ermine icing’ was initially borne of exclusivity – its red-brown hues coming from the use of non-Dutched, anthocyanin-rich cocoa. During the rationing of World War II, this transmuted to beetroot and red food colouring – something which is now the norm in its modern form. This means, while anything ‘red velvet’ is now synonymous with ‘luxurious’, ‘decadent’, or ‘richness’, the dry, one-note sugar-hit that lies beneath its polished exterior rarely lives up to that reputation.
Fittingly, Michael Eastman’s half-hour tragedy centres on this very disappointing lump of flour and dairy. Like the cake from which it takes its name, Velvet Farewell features some excellent technical work – but in the end, it fails to realise the promises of its immaculate window-dressing.
Eastman’s script serves to emphasise this inability to follow through. That’s a crying shame, because the first half of Velvet Farewell is excellent. It is a well-paced conversational; taking on the model of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (and many other stage plays adapted for the silver-screen) in which a minimalist cast make the most of an enclosed environment to ratchet up the tension.
The story sees Conner Gregory (Sasha Andreev) looking to make contact with his ex-girlfriend, Taylor. She’s going through a divorce. This may or may not have caught his interest.
After making contact with Taylor on Facebook, Conner arranges to meet at her family home, where he intends to apologise for a past wrong. Upon arrival, however, he finds only her mother, Jordan Valentine (Maggie Bearmon Pistner). Of the two actors, it is she who comes closest to reaching the heights of Taylor and Burton. That is not to say Andreev does a bad job – but in the presence of Bearmon Pistner’s fearsome performance – he does wilt a little by comparison.
The start of the film has seen Conner inform Jordan/Mrs V that he will be visiting her daughter. She is slow and deliberate in her responses; presenting as welcoming the news, but clearly disguising a frosty interior. As he makes the long drive to the remote house, she conspicuously prepares ingredients for baking – including some red food colouring, which she watches swirl down the drain, in a shot reminiscent of the final shot in Psycho’s iconic shower scene. We are left to wonder what she might be preparing for the man who broke her beloved Taylor’s heart.
Throughout their opening interactions, Jordan – or Mrs V, as Conner would have it – jabs and probes, as if testing her opponent for areas of weakness at the start of a bout of fencing. Amid the performative smiles and withering pleasantries, her contempt for the man in her kitchen is made plain by a series of looks that could turn an army to stone. Her daughter, she says, is out of the house – one of her kids got a concussion so she’s going to be at the local hospital for a while. In the meantime, why not bake that old red velvet cake recipe Conner taught Taylor back in the day?
While they bake, the pair continue to spar – but Conner’s defences are immaculate, and eventually he lands the first, inadvertent, touché. As Mrs V’s resentment continues to simmer, his use of the word “sorry” leads her to bark angrily at him not to say it again in her presence. Clearly, the moral debt he is looking to pay is one she feels words are too cheap to settle.
Leaving the cake to its own devices in the oven, Jordan recovers her cool, and proposes a tour of the house. During this walkabout, the work of cinematographer Bobby Burns finally has an opportunity to breathe a little more life into proceedings – having largely consisted of flat, nuts-and-bolts shots. With all the pieces in place from the establishing conversation, though, the camera can finally seek out the darker corners of the residence, and adds another level of dread in the process.
Amid the cavernous, shadowy hallways of the home, we always feel as though there is still something we are not being shown – waiting to leap out when we least suspect. Similarly, Randin Graves’ The Shining-inspired score helps ratchet up the tension, programming us to expect the unexpected.
It is unfortunate that so much good work has gone into cuing up the conclusion the film delivers, though – at best it is underwhelming, at worst, infuriating. If you want to find out what the twist is for yourself, before reading on, Velvet Farewell is available in full on YouTube. The video is embedded at the top of the review. For those who have done so, or don’t care to, here is what happens.
Throughout the film, we have been cued up to see a number of laptops open throughout the house. They are conspicuously resting on the Facebook account of Taylor Valentine. In the age of digital fraud, we can be sure quite early on that Taylor had nothing to do with the proposed meeting, and that her mother is using a fake account. During the tour, Conner also notices one of these screens – but rather than thinking anything is odd, he begins scrolling through Taylor’s pictures and messages, while Mrs V stands beside him. At no point does he find it odd that she doesn’t take issue with this behaviour.
Then, following another bruising exchange, Conner finally reveals to us why he left Taylor, all those years ago. It was because she “got sick.” Yes, his own mother had died of cancer not long before, so when his girlfriend, who he claims he “loved” was stricken by the same merciless disease, he just couldn’t bear to see it. At this point, most viewers will be casting their mind back to Mrs V’s earlier, mysterious preparations, and openly hoping she has something painful in store for Conner. The worst of the worst. A selfish, vile, little creep, who abandoned someone that loved him, at their weakest moment – and seemingly now hopes to pick up where he left off, since she survived.
Except, of course, Taylor did not survive. Her mother has been running her Facebook page in the 15 years since – in what seems set up for the greatest slow-burn revenge of all time. Again, though, we are left disappointed. For all the cold, methodical work of Jordan in the early film, for all the fire and the fury in her brief, terrifying outbursts, Eastman’s script and direction immediately reduce her to a cowering, stammering child; ashamed at having been caught in a lie.
The purpose of the cake? It isn’t riddled with cyanide or anthrax. Some hefty exposition explains that Mrs V remembered her daughter and her boyfriend baking a special red velvet when his mother passed away – and it seemed to help. Similarly, when Conner abandoned Taylor, she baked that same cake, and it seemed to help. Jordan hopes the same will be true for her. She wants closure – and has concealed her daughter’s death from the public in order to facilitate that over the course of a decade… Although, she had Taylor cremated, so presumably a number of professionals beyond the hospital knew of her demise – while the friends she left behind would probably have found that out if they’d ever bothered to try and visit their poor sick friend in the intervening period.
This logistic shortcoming is the least of Eastman’s crimes here though. We can suspend our disbelief for that. But not for the browbeating of a bereft old woman, struggling to process the death of her daughter. Not for the sudden repositioning of Conner as a sympathetic lead either.
In the final distasteful encounter, Conner berates Jordan. How could you? How could you not inform me of your daughter’s death from the disease I binned her for having? How could you have lured me here by manipulating my hopes of repairing that relationship, after all the hard work was done? SHAME ON YOU! Yes, fuckboy, you are the victim.
This kind of shift of sympathies works at the end of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because the screenplay is largely morally ambiguous. Its players each have their own pros and cons. They are each flawed but human. In this case, however, we have an irredeemably bad man, who the film’s conclusion heavily implies is in the right when telling the grieving mother of his ex-girlfriend what for. There are few viewers who will be willing to go along with this moral contortion – while everyone else will be left with a bad taste in their mouths.
Velvet Farewell is a film I think many of the amateur filmmakers who read Indy Film Library could learn from. Even if you run a production which has all the tools, you can still put out something with none of the heart needed to really connect with audiences. It won plaudits from some festivals, sure, and it is award winning – but that is because, like red velvet cake, it has a polished veneer that makes it easy to market. Even with the smoothest icing and the brightest crumb, however, its shell merely encases a spiteful, half-baked waste of an appetite.