Michael Winterbottom has been turning out a film per year, on average, since the mid 1990s. It’s hard to think of another director who has been so prolific yet made so little impact. About one in five of his movies actually connects, most recently 2010’s The Trip, which is less a director’s tour de force than a drily amusing showcase for the improv talents of two comic actors (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) trying to one-up each other.
This year’s Winterbottom is The Look of Love, a biopic of the English porn impresario Paul Raymond. Perhaps it’s because of how colorful Raymond’s biography is, with details that no screenwriter would dare invent, but the movie gradually overcame my skepticism.
It reminded me of how much I’d enjoyed 24 Hour Party People (2002), still Winterbottom’s best film, a portrait of Factory Records manager and club owner Tony Wilson that starred Steve Coogan as Wilson. Coogan reteams with Winterbottom to star as Paul Raymond in The Look of Love — which is to say, Coogan is playing yet another droll, emotionally walled-off celebrity, his specialty.
Paul Raymond’s story will be unfamiliar to most Americans: a born huckster but always smooth, Raymond (born Geoffrey Quinn) went from lowly origins in Liverpool to becoming first “the king of Soho,” then the richest man in England, with an estimated fortune of 1.5 billion pounds by the time he died in 2008, all thanks to his knack for marketing sex to the buttoned-down British public.
In the late 1950s, his traveling “nude circus” featured topless models posed caryatid-like on podiums, because a quirk of British law decreed that nudity was permissible on stage as long as the performers didn’t move. Raymond moved on to opening “the Raymond Revuebar,” a high-end strip club in London’s Soho district that skirted illegality by billing itself as a private club. Within a few years Raymond sold tens of thousands of Revuebar memberships, particularly as the club became a favorite hangout of a London in-crowd that included Peter Sellers. As the Revuebar takes off, Winterbottom switches from black-and-white to color, underscoring how a world where soft-core is part of pop culture is much less archaic and more recognizable to us than the antiquated “nude circus” era.
Raymond’s timing was perfect. He capitalized on a booming public interest in “adult” material as censorship laws weakened during the 1960s and ‘70s: he had his strip clubs, he opened risqué sex comedies in the vein of Oh! Calcutta! (to use a reference that may be unclear to anyone under 30) that ran for years in London, and not least, he published magazines like Men Only, Mayfair and Club International. No fool when it came to business, Raymond plowed his earnings into buying up as much Soho real estate as he could, correctly figuring that even the most dilapidated buildings would eventually become valuable.
Winterbottom and screenwriter Matt Greenhaigh present much of Raymond’s empire of smut as humorous kitsch, particularly during the 1960s–‘70s era. The film’s opening credits set the tone with a montage of period pin-ups, a mod-psych font for the titles, and an “exotica” tune on the soundtrack; naughty retro fun, sort of what people who have never seen Mad Men might imagine that show to be.
Winterbottom and Greenhaigh deliver a nonjudgmental portrait of Raymond, and it’s understandable if they regard him with ambivalence. One could argue that in his resolutely profit-driven way, he helped to liberate a grey, repressed, hypocritical society.
On the other hand, Raymond specialized in a uniquely tacky bad taste. It’s comical to see how his every venture has to be marketed as a yob’s idea of “sophisticated,” as if to politely disguise the prurient interest driving the customers to buy the magazines and see the shows. No one was ever going to make jokes about reading Men Only for the articles — unless they wanted to read the sex columns written by Amber (Tamsin Egerton), the redhead who starts out as a dancer in one of Raymond’s shows and who soon becomes his flashy mistress.
Inevitably, Raymond’s marriage crumbles, and he coldly walks out on his wife Jean (Anna Friel) and children. Jean goes on to win the largest divorce settlement in British history at that time, 1973.
This is all predictable and not especially compelling. Much of the first half of The Look of Love suffers from an obviousness in the telling: Raymond’s rise is depicted with the kind of montage you’ve seen in countless movies where the lead’s career takes off and the money starts rolling in, particularly when the protagonist strikes it rich through any kind of vice. The soundtrack shuffles through a slew of triumphant pop oldies and the images have a post–Scorsese fluidity. In fact, the Scorsese influence is so prevalent in the cinematic grammar that it always feels like Ray Liotta should be narrating as a few jump cuts show how the characters have “arrived.”
The Look of Love is also burdened with a hackneyed framing device. It opens in 1992, with a much older Raymond making his way through a crush of reporters asking about his daughter Debbie’s death by drug overdose; he retreats to a private office and broods over old videos of Debbie (Imogen Poots). During the film Winterbottom cuts back to this aged, broken Raymond a few times, and it’s distracting. The device is unnecessary, because an air of conspicuous doom hangs over Debbie anyway, as soon as she re-enters Raymond’s life at age 17, freshly kicked out of boarding school.
As the Raymond family dynamics become increasingly bizarre, the movie finds its real subject. Raymond has to figure out what to do with the one woman in his orbit whom he doesn’t want to pay to take off her clothes for a living. The film portrays Debbie as hanging around her father’s business and clubs, always trying to get his attention amid the mistresses and models who form his fawning retinue. Ultimately father and daughter bond through cocaine, offering each other a helpful line whenever one of them is feeling down.
In the film’s telling, Raymond’s private life becomes increasingly orgiastic well into his middle age. The good times never stop in his penthouse suite, which a visitor accurately describes as looking like something out of a James Bond movie. He surrounds himself with so many compliant dolly birds and drugs that his lifestyle becomes a centrifugal force, sweeping up both Debbie and even his ex-wife Jean, who returns from America to pose nude for Men Only in her forties, seemingly just to capture his attention.
Winterbottom renders this phase of Raymond’s life with his usual impersonality. Another director might underscore the decadent, if not grotesque aspect to the father-daughter dynamic here, but Winterbottom keeps things sleek and fast paced. The years go by in a blur: whereas the production designer and costumer clearly had a blast recreating kitschy 1960s and ‘70s flamboyance, The Look of Love depicts the ‘80s in surprisingly indistinct terms.
But maybe that’s what it felt like on the inside of Paul Raymond’s world. Prior to the Internet, porn was a perennial moneymaker, and Raymond had all the money and lawyers he needed to keep the outside world at a remove.
At the end of The Look of Love, Raymond is still something of a cipher. A viewer could speculate that decade after decade of peddling flesh, in whatever semi-respectable guises, corroded Raymond’s soul, but the film leaves it unclear as to how much of a soul he had to begin with. The movie is a whirl of slick surfaces, all flashy period styles and constant female nudity, that acts like an impressionistic tour of Raymond’s life. This depiction of the skin trade rarely goes beyond skin deep.
The Look of Love is now available via On Demand, iTunes and Amazon Instant Video; out on Region 1 DVD on 10/8/13.
You can watch the trailer for The Look of Love here: