“Dolphins pulling knickers off girls, for goodness’ sake – what’s not to like?”
This line, delivered without a hint of irony by Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan), encapsulates the lifestyle which Michael Winterbottom’s latest film portrays: sex, class, and money, all somehow indistinguishable from empty kitsch. The Look of Love is a biopic of Raymond, once Britain’s richest man, who made his fortune through risqué live shows, and softcore men’s magazines.
The film spends some time charting Raymond’s rise to fortune in the 60’s, allowing for some sumptuous retro-isms; black and white flash-blacks, kaleidoscopic rainbow tints, and so on. But the main focus is Raymond’s later life, involving failed relationships and the death of his daughter by drug overdose. The story offers itself to some obvious moralizing which fortunately Winterbottom avoids: it’s not a condemnation of shallow materialism or a sermon on the dangers of drug abuse. It would of course be possible to see the film as an indictment of the values Raymond pursues but there is something more interesting going on here, I think: the film is an exploration of the violence we do to ourselves in pursuing what we want in life.
Raymond is in a way a would-be existentialist hero, a self-created man who put a large stamp on the world. He is proud; when his wife leaves him and warns that he will come begging to have her back, he responds firmly that he’s never begged for anything in his life. Yet, despite some of the folly of Citizen Kane being clearly evident (with a daughter, rather than a girlfriend, groomed for stardom despite a mediocre talent), Raymond’s pride is never excessive to the point of hubris. Coogan plays Raymond affectlessly in nearly every scene, showing the same degree of emotion and enthusiasm whether apologizing to his wife or in the midst of an orgy. The message here is not the familiar one that while excess may be enjoyable for a time, there is a price to be paid in the end. Rather, the suggestion seems to be that pursuing one’s every desire leaves one empty, indifferent, even – and perhaps especially – if those desires are fulfilled.
At one point Raymond quotes Oscar Wilde: ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’; with a skylight above his bed, Raymond realizes this in the most literal fashion possible. Here is the crux of the values in the life he’s created for himself: a bed large enough for several convulsing bodies, to be collapsed in with a loved one and a special new friend or two especially after consuming appropriate amounts of wine and cocaine. Despite liberal doses of nudity, Winterbottom’s direction prevents this from ever becoming in the slightest bit titillating. Whatever else it is, The Look of Love is certainly not an erotic film (it has all the eroticism of, well, a dolphin pulling off a girl’s knickers). Threesomes and foursomes have rarely looked so unappealing; Raymond’s girlfriend’s vacant stare at one point says it all: Is the look of love?
There is an argument to be made that films can be appreciated as part of an entire oeuvre, and some of Michael Winterbottom’s films benefit from such a perspective. Winterbottom is a prolific filmmaker who displays an admirable willingness to tackle controversial topics and to experiment with diverse styles and subject matters. Though some of his experiments may fail, every one of his films feels fresh. The failures perhaps even add the anticipation of seeing a new Winterbottom film since we never know what we’re going to get next. But even so, there is no denying that we would prefer to see a film which stands up on its own terms, and fortunately The Look of Love is one of Winterbottom’s successes.