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Non-Review Review: The Look of Love

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

Paul Raymond (or “Paul Ray-monde!” as he introduces himself in flashback) is a pretty compelling character. The so-called “king of Soho”, Raymond was at one point the wealthiest man in Britain, owning an empire built on the back of gentlemen’s clubs, pornography and property. Michael Winterbottom’s exploration of Raymond’s life and times is a fascinating exploration of a very contradictory figure. On one hand, with his sharp suits and dignified dialogue with the press, Raymond presented himself as something approaching a gentlemen. He owned a nice house, his children partook of “all the right activities” and he was even fond of quoting Oscar Wilde. On the other hand, his empire was founded and built on an idea that was so simplistic it would be condescending if it wasn’t so successful: Raymond acquired his wealth through simple acknowledgement of the fact that people will pay to look at naked women.

All that glitters...

All that glitters…

Early on in the film, offering an interview, Raymonde explains his history in show business. He had started out on-stage himself, before his influence extended back stage. He, at one point, even posed as a mind reader. “I discovered that people would pay money to look at beautiful women,” he explains. “Especially if those women were naked.” He jokes that this was the one point where he actually was a mind reader, and in-touch with what the public wanted or expected.

And, to be fair, The Look of Love is relatively candid about Raymond’s approach to acquiring wealth. It doesn’t portray him as a misunderstood artist with an incredible creativity. Instead, the film acknowledges that Raymond was just very savvy. His solution to any problem seemed to be naked women. The earliest flashback sees Raymond hosting the “nu revue” (“that’s nu, not new – as in the french for nude”), which is essentially combining a circus with naked women.

Toute le monde...

Toute le (Ray)monde…

When Raymond tries to develop into a “theatre impresario”, his approach consists of terrible plays… and naked women. For some reason, the action takes place to a glass tank “swimming pool”, where the neighbours (all beautiful women) do nothing but swim back and forth. When his daughter Debbie wants to become a singer, Raymond gives her a show (“the Royal Follies”) that he fills with… naked women. And, to be fair, this approach yields dividends. Despite terrible reviews, his theatre is sold out for four weeks on the sensation surrounding the gratuitous nudity.

Steve Coogan does a great job as Raymond, perfectly capturing the ambiguities and contrasts within Raymond’s character. He is, on one level, clearly completely tasteless. He takes a great deal of pride in his media profile, almost overjoyed that his play is described as the worst play of the last 25 years. “The only thing worse than being talked about,” he quotes, “is not being talked about.” And so he boasts of having to pay out the largest settlement in British history, and probably smiled when the authorities conducted the biggest pornography raid ever.

So far Soho...

So far Soho…

And yet, despite this gaudiness, there’s a sense that Raymond craves legitimacy. As his work becomes less and less tasteful, he still insists on describing it as “erotica” and dismissing the assertion that he is “a pornographer.” He even brings in samples of Scandinavian pornography to argue his case. His investment in property and his repeated reminders that Ringo designed his pad both hint at a man who longs to be seen as a distinguished gentleman rather than a smut peddler.

The irony is that Raymond is far too practical to work within that class system. He’s far too literal-minded to ever be considered a legitimate artist. He only becomes interesting in theatre when the Lord Chamberlain is abolished, and he can put nudity in. A delightful early scene sees Raymond explaining to his dancers that being sexy trumps any narrative logic in their dance. Even if they are supposed to be gold, he explains that’s in not literal and they need to discard their clothes by the end of the song. At a later point, he discovers a loved one nursing a drug addiction, and his only point of concern is that they purchase the drugs from a reputable source.

The naked truth...

The naked truth…

It does feel a little like Winterbottom pulls his punches here. The Raymond family is dysfunctional, to say the least. I won’t spoil any of the film, but it is made clear fairly early on, and it continues to be the case throughout the film. Even the amicable family relationships are severely troubled and uncomfortable, and there’s a definite sense that Winterbottom’s portrayal of the family dynamic is a little bit too soft – that it lacks the bite that it really needs.

On the other hand, though, it means that Winterbottom doesn’t really judge his characters too harshly. He allows them all to speak for themselves, and they are all interesting and engaging people. There’s always a sense that there’s a great deal going on in the background, that lives are continuing between scenes. As a result, the film is quite easy to enjoy, and moves along at a fantastic pace, but it also feels just a little bit shallow.

Hardly a by-the-book bio-pic...

Hardly a by-the-book bio-pic…

That’s not really fair. Coogan gives Raymond a great deal of depth. Naturally, his comedy timing comes in handy when embodying a larger-than-life character. However, Coogan is also a much stronger dramatic actor than he ever really gets credit for. His portrayal of Raymond engenders a great deal of sympathy for the mogul, and it is genuinely hard to dislike the man, even as the film concedes his vices and his errors in judgment.

Coogan is supported by a fine ensemble. Imogen Poots continues to be a young British actress to watch. Anna Friel is as great as ever. Winterbottom has drawn the cast primarily from comedians, so the film is populated by recognisable stand-up comedians – including, at one point, a stand-up comedian as a stand-up comedian. Chris Addison does especially well as the especially dubious editor of Raymond’s pornography magazine.

Three of a kind...

Three of a kind…

Winterbottom gives the film a lovely sense of style and flair – one that perhaps excuses some of the relatively shallow handling of the Raymond family as a stylistic touch. The early years are shot in black and white, before the movie comes to colour. The sixties and the seventies have their own visual style. In particular, the film has a lovely period soundtrack. Nothing quite expresses the surreal reality of the sixties like the work of Donovan, and two of his songs feature here.

The Look of Love might not be as fascinating or as a compelling as A Cock & Bull Story or 24 Hour Party People, but it is a fascinating piece of film exploring a fascinating figure and those drawn into his orbit. Highly recommended.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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