The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Notorious Bettie Page

Reviewed by James MacDowell.

Director Mary Harron
Length 91 mins
Certificate 18
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article The latest from Mary Harron, director of I Shot Andy Warhol(1996) and American Psycho (2000), is a biopic of cult legend Bettie Page - the 1950s fetish/bondage pinup queen. We see Bettie's apple-pie beginnings in a Southern small-town Christian family, her rise from lingerie model to S&M bad girl, all the way to the porn witch-hunt trial that brought her image to the attention of mainstream America.

Considering the potential for tragedy in Page's story - that of the naïve girl who wandered almost by accident into the world of soft-core pornography - this biography is a surprisingly light affair. Occasionally bordering on camp, and shot through with an Ed Wood (1994)-like amused view of 50s subculture - Harron has chosen an affectionate, non-judgemental approach to her subject matter. It actually takes a while to orient oneself to the idea that this isn't in fact going to be a think-piece about the historical place of women in porn. Once we are comfortable with its tone, though, we can settle in and thoroughly enjoy all the pleasures the film offers - and they are numerous.

First and foremost, the central performance by Gretchen Mol as Bettie is a work of some considerable skill. Perfectly pitched between naïvely joyful, innocently sensual and desperately lost, she is utterly mesmerizing, chiming flawlessly with the overall attitudes of the piece. Even in a film like this, in which everyone is mildly exaggerated, Bettie comes over as if she is from another planet: like a walking, talking version of one of her photographs - with all the simplicities and complexities that such a description suggests. One hopes that this role is able to do for Mol what Patrick Bateman did for Christian Bale.

Next is the gorgeous, flawless cinematography. Just as Harron managed to recreate that indefinable plastic sheen of the 80s with American Psycho's style, so she and cameraman Mott Hupfel have managed to perfectly form a postmodern version of the 50s here. Whether in the predominant crisp, noirish black-and-white portions or in the - even more seductive - occasional splashes of bright, dirty, buzzing colour, the screen looks good enough to eat. Along with The New World (2006) and Brick (2006), this is easily one of the most delectably shot American films of the year.

The consistent goodwill of the film is another thing that recommends it. Like Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997), this is a refreshingly, guiltily friendly picture of porn-community-as-family that reminds you of just how nice it can be to watch a film populated by characters you genuinely like. Similarly unfaltering is the overall tone, striking a firm and convincing balance between pastiche, appropriation and originality. It is so confident and assured, in fact, that it makes us want to write strong letters of complaint to Harron, demanding she makes more than one film every five years.

This review was published on August 14, 2006.

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