Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Notorious Bettie Page (Harron, 2005)

One generation’s unspeakable pornography is another generation’s kitsch in Mary Harron’s lightweight but enjoyable The Notorious Bettie Page. Tracing her journey from sweet-faced innocent to swimsuit model to fetish icon and finally to evangelical, Harron’s film is at its best evoking 1950’s America with its costuming, art direction and knowing nods to relics like Sunbathing magazine. Gretchen Mol is a perfect fit as Bettie Page, stunning in her beauty and capable of finding the humanity and motivations of a character many of us only know from still photographs. Her hands tied up for a photo shoot, Bettie removes a ball-gag from her mouth, scolds the photographer for his rough language and declares her belief in Jesus – and we believe her. Where the film falls short is in establishing a definitive reason to exist. Harron and her co-writer Guinevere Turner give us the typical scandalized preachers and politicians, but fail to offer much of a point of view. As best as I can tell from this film, Page’s life was not terribly eventful apart from her appearance in some naughty photos. She did not suffer a tragic death or plunge into drug addiction or anything like that. In fact, she is still alive, now in her eighties. We see that she was a victim of rape and domestic violence, but we gain little insight into how these moments shaped who she was. She is called to Congress when a magazine featuring her bondage photos is seized in a raid, but she never is called to testify. Naturally, Harron should not invent false drama where it doesn’t exist. Still, it would be nice to understand what Page means to us now in the 21st century. Ultimately, her subject comes across as a bit of a dim bulb, unaware that some might see in her photos a dark undercurrent. She frets over whether her nude modeling will offend God, but decides that it cannot be wrong to give others pleasure. And besides, Adam and Eve were naked. It is also worth noting that two of the key photographers we see in Bettie’s life are women, including Bunny Yeager, who sent her photographs to Playboy. However, Harron does not use this opportunity to make any sort of feminist statement. Indeed, she does not make much of a statement at all. And yet, there is something captivating about looking back from an internet age in which pornography can seem so vicious to consider Page, whose dominatrix persona now seems refreshingly quaint. So, I can give the film a slight recommendation, but only for those already interested in the subject matter or for those who want to see a delightfully charismatic performance from Gretchen Mol.



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