Mary Harron doesn’t really know where she wants to go and has even less of an idea of how to get there. After directing I Shot Andy Warhol, her profile as a storyteller rose significantly when she helmed American Psycho in 2000. Her adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ psycho-yuppie novel, which she co-wrote with Guinevere Turner (who in turn wrote BloodRayne, an ominous sign if ever you needed one), was a slick reproduction of the book but, in the process of dulling the worst of Ellis’ salt-in-hookers’-wounds violence, Harron turned the story from one of Reagan-era excess into one about a rich white boy who just couldn’t play well with others. It was almost like a really, really dark version of Legally Blonde, only this time the protagonist is literally willing to kill to maintain his well-dressed, perfectly coifed lifestyle. American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman came to realize that “there is no catharsis” and that, in the end, his entire story and confession have served no purpose. In her latest film, The Notorious Bettie Page, Harron has found an unlikely match for Bateman in the one-time pin-up queen of the universe. Her version of Bettie Page is at once enchanting and forgettable, a beautiful girl with a personality barely skin deep, existing in a self-imposed, morally duplicitous arena, who manages to be both keenly aware of and genuinely unconcerned with the effects her life and work are having on her faith and the world at large. It’s the next logical step for Harron, who tells Bettie’s story with the same flat dazzle we saw in her earlier work.
The film opens in 1955, with congressional hearings investigating the sale of indecent material through the mail, and Bettie sits outside the chamber while waiting to testify. Shooting in black and white, Harron sets the mood by using stock footage from old films and newsreels as establishing shots, a smart and economical trick, similar to George Clooney’s use of actual reels of Senator Joseph McCarthy in his Good Night, and Good Luck. Harron soon cuts to a lengthy flashback that takes up most of the film, beginning with Bettie’s life in 1930s Nashville. Even as a girl, Bettie exists in two worlds without understanding either: She sits with her mother and siblings obediently and happily at church, and also strikes mock poses for a local boy with a camera. Her father beckons the kids inside one afternoon and then asks to see Bettie upstairs, and I’m assuming from young Bettie’s pensive look and the fade to a later date that she was sexually abused by her father. Was Bettie actually molested? Did this play a part in psychologically molding her? Is this related to her casual attitude toward the bondage photos for which she would later pose? These are legitimate questions, but if you’ve come seeking answers, then my friend, you’re barking up the wrong biopic. Harron skirts the consequences of such acts and in fact barely relates such events themselves: As an adult, Bettie (now played by Gretchen Mol) suffers in a physically violent marriage and, even after leaving her husband, she’s kidnapped one night and gang-raped in the woods by locals. You’d think that any one of these events, let alone their harrowing confluence, would be enough to send Bettie into some kind of shock, or at least make her sexually cautious but, in Harron’s film, Bettie just brushes it off and moves to New York to become a model, eventually winding up in shadier business circles and posing in increasingly erotic outfits with other girls who’ve wound up in the bondage business.
Bettie begins work with Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) and his sister, Paula (Lili Taylor), who shoot and distribute a variety of semi-hardcore girly mags and films that are a little harder to come by than they are now. Bettie agrees to be in one of their films, and it’s with the home movies chronicling the film shoot that Harron switches to color, drawing on a postcard palette of primary hues and pastel touches. The appearance of color grounds Bettie’s life, granting it immediacy and marking an entry into a new phase for her, though curiously, Harron shifts back to black and white in a few scenes, then back to color later, and back again, off and on until the film’s end. I tried to determine if there were some pattern in the changes, some through-line that would tie the color scenes together — maybe Bettie’s life outside New York would be in color, but everything in the city would be black and white (nope) — but the only feature they seem to share is Bettie getting nude. It’s as if Harron wanted to make some kind of artistic statement, then abruptly decided to shoot the naked Mol in color because it would look better. I’d like to believe she had a higher motive in mind, but I couldn’t discern one.
As Bettie rises higher in the ranks of 1950s S&M modeling circles, she becomes increasingly naïve, blissfully unaware of her popularity and unable or unwilling to act as if she has the first clue about human sexuality. At her first bondage photo shoot, she can’t walk straight in her eight-inch stilettos and is led on wobbly feet to the bed in a thin but apt metaphor. Bettie even begins taking acting lessons at one point in an attempt to pursue some kind of legitimate career, though the boyfriend she meets through class, Marvin (Jonathan Woodward), grows disgusted with her when he discovers her in a bondage magazine, to Bettie’s genuine surprise.
The film flows along aimlessly for an hour and a half, devoid of any semblance of tension or drama. Bettie’s testimony isn’t even required at the ‘55 hearings, so she leaves. It’s as if Harron expects us to care about Bettie by virtue of her existence alone, and the result is a slightly charming but wholly uninvolving film. Bettie’s dichotomous nature, gleefully posing for a variety of pornographers while professing spiritual remorse for her acts, is never dealt with in depth. She tells one producer, “I believe in Jesus,” to which he replies, “Of course you do, my dear,” dismissing her claim with the evidence that she’s speaking while tied to a wall, a ball-gag hanging around her neck. Mol’s perpetual but bland effervescence betrays no hint of the religious anguish from which Bettie is ostensibly suffering and, as such, her spiritual reformation toward the end of the film falls flat. Bettie says that for her, church is a place to be “lifted up out of yourself,” where you can “taken to another place.” Maybe if Harron had the passion to match those words, her story could have been more convincing. But her Bettie seems ashamed to do more than go through the motions, almost is if she’s embarrassed; her apologetics feel more like apologies.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.This Confession Has Meant Nothing
Film | May 15, 2006 | Comments ()