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‘The Look of Love’ captures a sleazy moment in time

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Paul Steve Coogan

Debbie Imogen Poots

Fiona Tamsin Egerton

Jean Anna Friel

Tony Chris Addison

IFC Films presents a film directed by Michael Winterbottom. Written
by Matt Greenhalgh. Running time: 101 minutes. No MPAA rating (adult nudity and sexuality). Opening Friday at Gene Siskel Film Center.

Updated: August 13, 2013 6:07AM

Double-billing comic and tragic tones, the biopic “The Look of Love” follows a father and a daughter over three decades in London’s swinging Soho. Nudie impresario and real estate mogul Paul Raymond (1925-2008) and indulged druggie Debbie Raymond (1956-1992) are not characters in a moralizing melodrama, though. Director Michael Winterbottom and writer Matt Greenhalgh instead offer understated sentimentality and pop sociology.

A month after Debbie (Imogen Poots) died of an overdose, Business Age magazine ranked Paul (Steve Coogan) the richest man in Britain. “The Look of Love” opens with Paul’s chauffeur taking him home to his London penthouse after her funeral. Alone in shadows, he views a documentary videotape about himself. Winterbottom’s drama is structured as flashbacks from this viewing. Raymond attracted notoriety for his private strip clubs, sex farces and porn magazines. Re-creations of television interviews and press conferences supply exposition for his career.

Raymond once advertised his bawdy shows with a bad review: “Arbitrary Displays of Naked Flesh — Daily Express.” He copied Playboy and launched magazines that got more explicit than what Hugh Hefner and his daughter Christie published, yet somehow managed to dodge London police’s Obscene Publications Squad.

Raymond hired daughter Debbie to help run his empire. He bought up buildings in the West End. “Nothing confers more respectability on someone than property,” he observes.

Winterbottom sometimes frames his fact-based dramas with self-conscious touches, such as characters addressing the camera. “My name is Paul Raymond — welcome to my world of erotica,” Coogan announces in the film’s opening credits. Known for his randy puns and biting asides onscreen, Coogan slips easily into the role of Raymond. Coogan of course also played the protagonist in Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People” (2002), based on an actual Manchester TV personality, who later turns up in “The Life of Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story” (2005). There he interviews Coogan, who is playing himself as an actor making that very film.

Screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh shares Winterbottom’s interest in British pop culture. As a teen, he reviewed the historic club scene depicted in “24 Hour Party People.” He also scripted two biopics about U.K. rock musicians: “Control” (2007), which chronicled the brief career Ian Curtis, the singer of Joy Division, and “Nowhere Boy” (2009), which dramatized John Lennon before the Beatles.

After editing a book of interviews with the prolific director, Damon Smith concludes that Winterbottom is “loath to psychologize his characters or intellectualize the artistry behind his craft.” That assessment also applies to “The Look of Love,” which never dissects or critiques Raymond. Insisting that he is “an entertainer,” not a pornographer, he fails to make a key distinction between wealth and well-being when he tells the press: “Debbie has all the money in the world. I don’t understand.”

On a 1975 TV show, Raymond once admitted, “I think financial disasters are more important to me that personal disasters.” In “The Look of Love,” Greenhalgh and Winterbottom only imply their subject could self-indict himself this way.

In a recent interview, Coogan told the European TV station Film 4 that he did not want to judge Raymond “in that kind of American way.” In his press notes, Winterbottom adds: “We didn’t make the moral too obvious, or too heavy-handed.” And they don’t. But the bottom line is unmistakable.

Bill Stamets is a locally based free-lance writer and reviewer.

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