BIOPIC: The Look of Love (2013)

The Look of Love (UK, 2013)
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Starring Steve Coogan, Imogen Poots, Anna Friel, Tamsin Egerton

When I reviewed Trishna around this time last year, I remarked upon the speed at which Michael Winterbottom works, commenting that he "has better films in him, and makes them quick enough to put this disappointment swiftly behind him." The downside, however, to this pace and efficiency is that he often neglects to go into enough detail about his chosen subject matter. What was a large problem with Trishna is now an even larger one with The Look of Love, which spends more time evading its central character than it does examining him.
I've long complained that biopics which attempt a grand sweep of a person's life almost always come up short. They don't all fail for the same reasons: The Life and Death of Peter Sellers structures its story in a way more suited for television; Gandhi is so overly respectful that it never lets us emotionally connect to the main character; and Shine starts off very well but eventually descends into melodrama. In each case the films are guilty of biting off more than they can chew, hobbled by a surplus of events which leaves them as a pretty, wide horizon rather than a deep, rewarding dive.
The Look of Love is another biopic which suffers from this problem. It attempts to chronicle the life of publisher and club owner Paul Raymond from his humble beginnings on the late-1950s variety circuit to the death of his daughter Debbie in 1992. Covering thirty years of a person's life is a tall order regardless of the person in question, but Winterbottom never seems entirely sure of what he is interested in, or more to the point why he is interested in it.
Films with a sexual subject matter have to be very clear about their intentions towards their audience. Many of the most celebrated films in this vein, such as Boogie Nights, Shame and Eyes Wide Shut, work very hard to turn their audience off, either by showing them some unrelenting underbelly to all the glamour ,or by telling their story in such a clinical manner that titillation becomes impossible. Having negated our most shallow and bestial response, they can then explore ideas surrounding sex and sexuality on a deeper level, whether the objectification of the human body, the destructive power of sex addiction, or the dangers of jealousy.
It is equally possible to make a film which will arouse an audience in more ways than one, provided that said arousal is supported by a discussion of the issues that surround it. One can show a raunchy sex scene and then examine the consequences of that scene without needing to shout down its audience's desires. Ultimately, The Look of Love's approach is a reflection of the clichéd British attitude towards sex. Rather than committing either way, it sits around looking rather awkward and embarrassed, content to have the nudity but averting its gaze whenever difficult questions are asked.
What results from this approach is a film with a great deal of froth and flesh but no depth to it whatsoever. You could call it gratuitous, were it not so frustrating and un-engaging that it couldn't possibly offend anyone even vaguely familiar with the human body. The film seems only interested in capturing the period look and the levels of luxury that Raymond's life reached, rather than asking all the interesting questions about what underpins such a lifestyle. It doesn't have to be scathingly critical in doing so - we just need a sense that there is a point to all this.
Part of the problem with The Look of Love is that it is overly sympathetic towards its central character. Steve Coogan is a far more talented actor than many people give him credit for, and its collaborations with Winterbottom bear that out, whether it's his breathtaking Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People or the self-reflexive, postmodern work of The Trip or A Cock and Bull Story. This performance, however, finds both parties leaning heavily on Alan Partridge, painting Paul Raymond as a lovable figure regardless of how seedy he becomes.
It's all very well gives us a central character who makes a living out of sex and doesn't come across as a complete sleazeball. But it becomes a problem when the film is so obsessed with making us like him that it dodges all the darker parts of the industry in which he engages. A typical example comes when a journalist asks Raymond if his magazine Men Only demeans women; Raymond pauses for a few seconds, and then says: "No.".
The film makes no real attempt to engage with any of the questions about the morality of what Raymond was doing, or the legal grey areas that surrounded his career; in the latter regard it makes even Mrs. Henderson Presents look gritty and determined. Court cases, divorces, press controversies and long-lost sons are all treated as random things that happen, which come and go like issues of his magazine. It's almost as though the film were being fast-forwarded, so you could follow the movement of a scene but not understand why what was happening was happening.
The film also fails, just as damningly, to justify the darker scenes that do happen later on, involving Debbie's drug problems and the guilt Raymond feels for what happened to her. Even with the clunky wraparound, with Raymond reminiscing about his life while watching video footage, these scenes come out of nowhere and are deeply manipulative. The worst of these involves Raymond doing Debbie a line of coke while she is giving birth to her first child. What could have been disturbing for all the right reasons just comes across as offensive and exploitative.
Without any real substance to speak of, all that remains of The Look of Love is its look. Winterbottom has clearly made an effort to properly recapture the look of Soho through the various time periods, and generally speaking he is successful. He is particularly adept at capturing the flimsy, trashy, tacky look of sex comedies and nude revues, which grew in popularity through the 1960s.
Unfortunately, the action is so insubstantial that it ends up being marked by the changing of costumes, which draws too much attention to them. The film is a very wiggy affair, with characters going through plenty of wigs, teeth and false beards which look opulent in places but very tacky in others. Much like Mr. Nice, Bernard Rose's biopic of drug dealer Howard Marks, it's an ultimately televisual affair, compounded by the appearances of established TV stars like Chris Addison, Matt Lucas and David Walliams.
The Look of Love is a frustratingly frothy affair which makes far too little from a potentially fascinating subject matter. While its attitude towards women or the sex industry is not overtly demeaning or offensive, its refusal to engage maturely with any of the issues surrounding said industry render the whole experience desperately inane. It is in the end as shallow and as empty as the club shows that it depicts, and a low point from a talented director who really can do so much better.


NEXT REVIEW: Oliver Twist (1948)