The true story of British adult magazine publisher and entrepreneur Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan). A modern day King Midas story, Raymond became one of the richest men in Britain at the cost of losing those closest to him.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Let’s start with the title: 'The Look of Love' was a Dusty Springfield song from 1967. Its lyrics posed a breathy promise: underneath a cool exterior there’s no mistaking the real thing. It’s a great number; smoky, sexy and soulful. Michael Winterbottom’s new film isn’t quite any of that. Set over three decades, beginning in the late '50s, this is a world of sleaze: London’s Soho and its nightlife of red-haloed leathery opulence and ludicrous softcore live acts. But the nudie shows, so quaint and sweet, were but a gateway to the district’s real money-spinner: porn, which came hardcore and sold fast. So then this is a movie of naked flesh and flash. Still, it is not an exercise in post-modern camp. Halfway through, the copious casual nudity feels neither gratuitous nor exploitative, but somewhat stale; a testament to the movie’s portrait of a culture where satisfaction becomes a matter of too much. The mirrored ceilings, the oversized moustaches, and big-hair dress a story that is desperately sad.
Winterbottom is staunchly unsentimental
After a rousing curtain raiser, a very funny parody/homage to swingin’ '60s movie title sequences with graphics that would make Austin Powers wriggle with delight, Winterbottom plunges into a glum vibe of introspection. And this mood never really lifts completely from the film. It’s like an almighty hangover that resists all cures, or better still, a bad conscience that won’t be, can’t be, wiped.
It is 1992. Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan) is sitting in the dark. He’s staring at a TV. It’s one of those 'mod’ monitors; so groovy it would’ve felt perfectly at home in a scene from Space 1999. Raymond is England’s richest man and his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots) is dead at 36, OD’d from a toxic mix of smack and grog. With dying eyes, he’s watching a TV documentary about her life, trying to figure out where it all went wrong because, the way he saw it, he gave her everything. Raymond, who presided over news conferences like a ring master impersonating a striptease hawker, is confronted by a scrum of reporters as the news of Debbie’s death erupts: 'I don’t understand it," he says, defeated.
Like his superb 24 Hour Party People (2002), this is Winterbottom in screen bio mode, playfully ominous, with an eye for surreal absurdities. Nominally, The Look of Love appears as the story of the man who saw himself as the Brits’ answer to Hugh Hefner. Raymond made a fortune as a porn impresario and real estate baron – he owned two-thirds of Soho by the end of the '70s (while the porn grossed as high as 10,000 untaxable pounds a week). He published magazines like Men Only, ran clubs and theatres and dodged all attacks from a long list of opponents – from feminists, the law, and the censors – with a seemingly endless series of punning Benny Hill-like quips (only funnier).
The script, by Matt Greenhalgh (Control), isn’t out to deliver an anatomy of the social, cultural and procedural details of Raymond’s life and times (and that’s a grim and seedy saga if any of the available histories are anything to go by). Instead Winterbottom and Greenhalgh provide a kind of pageant that floats by in a series of powerful impressions: we get Raymond the TV gadfly; Raymond the serial philanderer; Raymond the showman, who really does know his business; Raymond the wealthy man whose emotional life is poverty stricken.
The structure is tricked out with time-shifts that send the story back and forth, and Winterbottom has great fun with faux-TV doco footage, and elaborate multi-split screen high-speed montages of softcore porn shoots. ('What’s that finger doing?")
All the dramatic action ultimately returns to Debbie and her weird relationship with Raymond. At the time of her death, she was poised to inherit her Pa’s empire. The shape of the film invites us to read it as Raymond’s lived memory. We see Debbie’s desire for fame, her descent into drugs, her unhappy love life and Raymond’s indulgent, doting devotion. Yet Winterbottom is staunchly unsentimental and doesn’t go in for any phony psychoanalysis. This gives The Look of Love a cool vibe; it makes us observers and reveals Raymond as a self-absorbed twit. Blind to his own faults, he fails to see the emotional needs of not only Debbie but all in his orbit: his wife, Jean (Anna Friel), and his long-term lover Fiona (Tamsin Egerton).
As is typical of Winterbottom’s pictures, the acting is fine – Coogan and Poots are particularly good – and it looks and sounds terrific. But I suspect that for some, the film’s dedication to a kind of ironic distance will seem evasive; its reluctance to take a 'position’ on porn a form of cowardice. I think it smart and found it modest and its sensibility – a moral tale where sensual indulgence and wealth is no substitute for commitment, substance and emotional involvement – rather old-fashioned (in a good way).
And the best scenes in the film – rather than its high comedy, or po-mo satire – deliver this theme in a way that’s deeply disquieting. One is grotesque: Debbie is in hospital, in labour. By this stage she’s a coke addict. She wants a snort. Reluctantly, Raymond helps her do a line. The other I really like is an agonising dinner party scene for two, played between Raymond and his illegitimate son Derry (Simon Bird). They’re in Raymond’s ridiculous luxe flat, all shag and shiny surfaces. Coogan plays it cautious, polite observing all etiquette with the utmost vigilance. Raymond’s putting on an especially good impression, like a businessman afraid he’ll spoil an important deal. The kid is wrinkled with confusing, groping with unexpressed longing. It’s painfully funny and horribly poignant, because we’re never quite sure whether Coogan’s bluffing or whether he’s genuinely oblivious to what is really going on. Either way, it’s painful and revealing.
The film’s original title was going to be The King of Soho but Raymond’s son Howard put a stop to the producers using it. That’s probably a good thing. There’s something savage in The Look of Love; it sums up Raymond’s guilt and Debbie’s longing.