The Look of Love & In the House

June 29, 2013
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“I started out with a mind-reading act,” says Paul Raymond, ‘the King of Soho’. “I soon realised that people liked to look at attractive girls, and they liked it even more if the girls had no clothes on. So in that sense, and in that sense alone, I could read people’s minds.”The producers of The Look of Love, Michael Winterbottom’s racy bio-pic of Raymond, seem to have had the same unremarkable insight into people’s minds. Regardless of what one makes of the man, the film offers plenty of opportunities to see attractive girls with no clothes on.

Born as humble Geoffrey Quinn, in Liverpool, Paul Raymond (1925-2008) built an empire that allegedly made him the richest man in Great Britain. One need not be a genius to figure out that sex sells, but it required considerable chutzpah to make millions from strip clubs and soft-core porn mags while playing the role of a respectable businessman rather than a sleaze merchant.

For many people Raymond was, and will always remain, a sleazebag, although he is given a sympathetic treatment in The Look of Love. This is partly down to the performance of Steve Coogan in the lead role, who can’t help turning Raymond into a comedian. The real Raymond had a stutter, and – almost unbelievably – was said to be shy. The British press has already noted a distinct resemblance to Alan Partridge, the fictional TV personality that put Coogan on the map. He even chimes in with a couple of impersonations, just like the routines he goes through with Rob Brydon in The Trip (2010).

This may add laughs to our picture of Raymond, but it is a posthumous embellishment that probably takes us away from the truth. Although we see many disreputable aspects of Raymond’s character, The Look of Love is essentially the familiar story of a man who achieved extraordinary wealth and fame, but found money couldn’t buy happiness.

After the death of his daughter, Debbie, in 1992, Raymond lost his taste for publicity and rarely stirred from his luxury apartment in Mayfair. He sat there counting his money, losing touch with a changing world. When he died, he left an estate valued at £650 million which went largely to his granddaughters, Fawn and India Rose.

Winterbottom begins the film after Debbie’s funeral, with Raymond appearing shellshocked and broken. We quickly slip back to the late 1950s, where we meet with a keen, fast-talking Raymond looking to exploit every media opportunity. The challenge in those early days was to find ways of exposing as much flesh as possible, both on stage and in the men’s magazines, without being prosecuted.

Raymond was given a boost by the permissive attitudes of the swinging sixties, when sexual exploitation could be marketed as sexual liberation. He also went into the world of the West End theatre, putting on hugely successful productions such as Pyjama Tops, which were banal sex romps, with gratuitous female nudity.

We are introduced to the young Raymond by means of a BBC interview and commentary, reminiscent of the doco-drama style of Peter Watkins. At this stage he is a family man living in leafy Wimbeldon with his wife, Jean (Anna Friel) and two kids. The only kink in his lifestyle comes from the casual affairs he pursues with girls from the club, an arrangement tolerated at home.

When he becomes besotted with one of these girls, the statuesque Amber (Tamsin Egerton), he leaves Jean and sets up in the city with his new girlfriend. The ambitious Amber is rechristened Fiona Richmond, and soon becomes the mainstay columnist for Men Only, Raymond’s flagship magazine. His love life, however, continues to be just as lively, until Fiona decides she’s had enough of his penchant for threesomes.

Perhaps the only woman for whom Raymond has unconditional love is Debbie, played by Imogen Poots, who is unrecognisable from the last time we saw her, as the young violinist, Alex, in Performance. As Alex, Poots was pristinely beautiful, smart and idealistic. As Debbie she is vulgar and dim, with gnawing insecurities and a drug habit. She wants to be a performer, so dad makes her the star on one of his shows, but her singing is mediocre at best.

Her father is grooming Debbie to take over the empire when she overdoses, and all is lost. If we can’t feel too much sympathy for the aging entrepreneur we meet at the beginning and end of the fim, it is because everything in between has been such a riot – a fast-changing montage of sex and outrageous gimmicks, propelled by a soundtrack featuring pop songs by T-Rex, The Sweet, Hot Chocolate, and so on.

Like almost everything made by this prolific and adventurous director, The Look of Love is a flawed piece of work. At times the story is vague and confusing, at other moments the continuity sags, creating flat patches in an otherwise breathless narrative. One can’t help feeling this is a rather superficial overview of a complicated personality. It is the way that a famous showman might like to be portrayed to the world. There have been no cries of outrage from his heirs, who are obviously pleased with an Impressionist biography that is full of colour but with nothing truly black.

François Ozon is almost as prolific and adventurous as Michael Winterbottom, but while Ozon has a superior sense of style I’ve never seen a film by the British director as unspeakably bad as Ozon’s offbeat musical, 8 Women (2002). In Angel (2008) he also made a very poor adaptation of a novel by British author, Elizabeth Taylor, in which an utterly English sense of irony was transformed into a French farce. Even Potiche (2010) was a patchy affair, relying on the big name appeal of the ageless Catherine Deneuve and the bloated Gérard Depardieu.

It might be wise for Ozon to give up on musicals and so-called comedies, and concentrate on the taut, psychological dramas that constitute his best work. In the House falls into that category, being his most impressive film since The Swimming Pool (2003).

The story is set in a high school, the Lycée Gustave Flaubert, where Fabrice Luchini plays Germain, a disgrunted French teacher who despises the progressive dumbing down of the syllabus and the illiteracy of his students. Having set his class the exercise of writing about what they did on the weekend, he is surprised by the contribution of one boy, Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer), who relates how he has insinuated himself into another boy’s confidence so he could satisfy his curiosity about a middle class home and family.

There is something sinister and calculated about this account, but it is so well written Germain becomes intrigued. He finds that Claude, who sits as a quiet observer at the back of the class, is a poor boy who lives with his invalid father.

When Claude continues to submit installments about life in the house of his friend, Rapha Artole, and his parents, Rapha senior and Esther, Germain becomes hooked. He lends Claude books and tutors him on the art of writing. We watch the story as it develops, and see the way it impacts on Germain’s home life with his wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), who manages a contemporary art gallery.

The scene is set for a skilful investigation of that twilight zone where life and art become indistinguishable. We watch Claude becoming part of the Artole family, and read his acute critical comments as he dissects them like insects under a microscope. He is fascinated by the way they live their lives, thinking about sports or interior decorating, with scarcely a moment’s reflection. At the same time he is developing a fixation with Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), whom he describes as the most bored woman in the world.

Germain can sense disaster looming, but cannot extract himself from Claude’s literary project which begins to effect his home life and the way he treats the students.

Having once tried to be a writer himself, and decided he wasn’t good enough, the teacher is going through the experience again, vicariously, with his pupil. As Germain is drawn into this vortex, compromising himself and his professional ethics, the suspense steadily builds.

At the same time, Jeanne’s gallery, The Minotaur’s Maze, is under threat of closure from new owners who don’t appreciate the radical art she favours. I won’t attempt to describe the works, but as a parody of contemporary art, it is wickedly close to the bone. Germain thinks it is all merde, but tries to be supportive. To him it is a clear statement of the superiority of literature over the visual arts. The catalogue essays alone provide sufficient proof.

Everything in this story hinges on the character of Claude, an alarming combination of youthful naivetie and penetrating insight. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, he sets out to inspire trust and exerts a quiet seductiveness. Yet the objectivity with which he analyses and manipulates the Artoles has a diabolical aspect. He schemes to seduce Esther, having analysed the shallowness of her personaity and realised the best way to proceed.

It is an arresting performance from 23-year old, Ernst Umhauer, which brought him an award as Most Promising Actor in the 2013 Lumières, the French equivalent of the Golden Globes. In the role of Claude he demonstrates that those traits which make a promising writer may also produce a monster, willing to sacrifice his participation in life for the author’s self-appointed right to play God.

 

The Look of Love, UK, rated MA 15+, 105 mins

In the House, France, rated MA 15+, 105 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 29, 2013