Reviewed: The Look of Love

Mags to riches.

The Look of Love (18)
dir: Michael Winterbottom

An 11th-hour change of title befell Michael Winterbottom’s film about the life of Paul Raymond, the club owner, property magnate and porn baron, when it emerged that Raymond’s son had first dibs on The King of Soho. But that title would have seemed too celebratory for a film that already becomes excitable whenever it depicts its subject’s escapades through the convention of montage.

The Look of Love is a more thoughtful fit for a picture that at least tries to make sense of the warped relationship between Raymond (Steve Coogan) and his daughter, Debbie (Imogen Poots). The film suggests that having inducted her into his hedonistic, druggy lifestyle as a show of devotion denied to his other children, he failed to notice the damage it was doing. He couldn’t see the addict for the coke.

That said, the movie gets off to a disastrous start. The authentically groovy title sequence, accompanied by a sax-heavy easy-listening score, is perfect. Jacqueline Abrahams’s production design and Stephanie Collie’s costumes are persuasive from the off – the speed with which labyrinthine wallpaper patterns, leopard-print furniture and men’s furs come to appear normal is retrospectively frightening. But the structural choices made by the screenwriter, Matt Greenhalgh, who has form in the biopic genre, after Control and Nowhere Boy, betray his script’s identity crisis. The film begins after Debbie’s death, with Raymond sequestered in a velvet-walled sanctuary watching a documentary about her life. No sooner has this started than the action switches to a second documentary, this time about Raymond, his career and domestic happiness with his wife, Jean (Anna Friel). Even Citizen Kane only needed one documentary-within-the-film, for goodness sake.

Raymond and Jean share an understanding about his extra-curricular activities with the dancers who populate his establishments – notably the members’ club the Raymond Revuebar, which he opened in Soho in 1958. The understanding extends to Raymond doing whatever he likes and Jean being a good sport about it. When he climbs into bed long after her, it is almost shocking to hear her chirrup without malice: “Was she nice?” The next time it happens, she is not placated by Raymond admitting that he doesn’t know whether or not Fiona (Tamsin Egerton), that evening’s companion, is good in bed. If he didn’t sleep with her, she must be special.

Sure enough, Raymond leaves Jean and their children for Fiona. Exiting court after the divorce hearing, he can’t help correcting a reporter who calls the settlement agreed in his ex-wife’s favour one of the largest in British history: “I think you’ll find it’s the largest.” His bragging extends even to his losses. But then it’s the same sensibility that enables him to turn ashes into gold dust: when a tabloid newspaper sneers at the “arbitrary displays of naked flesh” in one of his dodgy theatrical productions, he splashes the line all over the posters. “House Full” signs go up in no time.

When Debbie is old enough, Raymond brings her into the business as the only clothed participant of one of his nude musicals. At a press conference, he responds with alarm to the question of whether she will appear naked, and Winterbottom cuts to Debbie giving an almost imperceptible wince at this display of protectiveness doubling as a slight; she’s like the schoolchild who is happy to be excused from PE for all eternity by an everlasting sick note but resentful of the outsider status, the perceived privilege, that this confers on her.

It doesn’t help that Debbie’s ambitions don’t always correspond to her talents. Any actor looking to mine pathos from an obliviously terrible musical turn is competing with the memory of Gwen Welles in Robert Altman’s Nashville. (Altman always said he never knew if this was Welles giving it her best shot and falling short, and never asked.) There are many great moments in Poots’s piercing performance – ordering champagne through a cascade of wounded tears, or breaking bad news to her father by chopping it out in cocaine form –but her delicate rendition of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David title song, in a version only just poor enough to signal that Debbie plausibly might not realise her own shortcomings, is the high point.

If Debbie becomes the centre of the film, that’s only because Raymond is so fatally lacking in self-awareness. (His solution when an associate rages about Debbie’s drug habit is to sack the associate.) Coogan is good at the bluster and the showmanship, less so when forced to contemplate himself mournfully in the mirror in that old standby shot for the character in need of depth. He will undoubtedly be a better actor once he can remove most of the traces of his key creation, the rancid minor celebrity Alan Partridge, and of himself. There are Partridge-esque touches here, such as the attempted witticisms that lead to unforeseen conversational cul-de-sacs. Warming to the idea of himself as the Pied Piper as he gives Fiona a tour of his apartment, Raymond says: “Yes, follow me into the . . . well, not the sewer . . .” Not hard to imagine that line leaving Partridge’s curdled mouth.

Elsewhere it seems Raymond is being remade in Coogan’s image. It may be that the real Paul Raymond was an incorrigible impressionist, given to imitating Sean Connery during meals. (We’ve all done it.) But Coogan’s dinner-table impressions were such a big part of Winterbottom’s BBC series The Trip, it might have been prudent to steer clear of them, or else risk looking like the actor who is an accomplished accordionist in his spare time and argues on this basis that his character should play the accordion too.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit