Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful


Newton’s Teutonic sensibility of beauty is both cold and sexy.

 (2020) Documentary (Kino LorberHelmut Newton, Grace Jones, Anna Wintour, Isabella Rossellini, Charlotte Rampling, June Newton, Hanna Schygula, Catherine Deneuve, Marianne Faithfull, Claudia Schiffer, Sylvia Gobbel, Phyllis Posnick, Carla Sozzoni, Nadja Auermann. Directed by Gero von Boehm

 

Helmut Newton is often described in terms of being a provocateur, an enfant terrible, the King of Kink, as Anna Wintour, the doyenne of Vogue magazine and one of his main employers, dubbed him. His photographs were often controversial, but always memorable.

He was born in Germany and grew up there during the age of the Weimar Republic, whose aesthetic influenced his work to a large extent. The rise of the Nazi party and their depiction of the human form (he admired Leni Riefenstahl’s work in Olympia although he bristles at the thought that she was an influence, seeing as he was Jewish and ended up fleeing Germany with his family). His was an essentially Teutonic aesthetic.

At the time he was working (he passed away in a car accident in Los Angeles in 2004 at the age of 83) he was recognized as an artist, an influence on how women were photographed (for better or for worse). Seen through the lens of 2020, perhaps we are less kind to him; often his pictures depicted women nude, and they were nearly always white (Grace Jones, the Jamaican singer, was one of the few exceptions), blonde, tall and statuesque. Often, they were posed in bondage gear, or in demeaning poses – there was often an element of S&M to his oeuvre – and his models often glared defiantly at the camera, a cigarette dangling petulantly from lips heavily painted with lipstick, smoke wreathing the lower part of their jaw.

His work hasn’t aged well in the sense that we are a different culture now; even though his portraiture depicted women as being strong and in control in most  occasions (and many of his models interviewed here said that even posing butt naked they felt safe and strong when posing for him) but many consider him a misogynist; certainly feminist Susan Sontag, who appeared with him on a French talk show (shown here) pointedly made the accusation, which he denied. “I love women” he protests, to which she responds “That doesn’t impress me. Misogynists always say they love women. Executioners love their victims.”

I suppose I would agree with the criticisms, except that nobody seems to be criticizing Robert Mapplethorpe, a contemporary, for shooting men in the same manner. There is a double standard here, reversed. There are those who say that it’s about time; as my mother might say, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Von Boehm, a veteran of German television, chooses not to make this a biography; Newton himself jokes during one of his archival interviews that “photographers are boring…if you want to know all that (details about his life and influences), I’m saving that for someone who has a lot more money than you.” Like many artists, he prefers to let his work speak for itself.

We mostly hear from the women in his life – his wife June (mostly in audio clips), Wintour, gallery curator Carla Sozzoni and a host of women who posed for him over the years; Jones, actresses Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Catherine Deneuve and Hanna Schygula, models Claudia Schiffer, Nadja Auermann and Sylvia Gobbel, and singer Marianne Faithfull. Most of them praise the photographer, although Jones admits with her typical candor “He was a pervert. That’s good; so am I.”

The film is hagiographic in that it really doesn’t address the criticisms – valid as they are – about his depiction of women. His wife describes him as a “naughty boy who grew up to be an anarchist” which is about as close to a description of who he was as you are likely to get. The filmmakers seem to be trying to allow the viewer to develop their own opinions about his work, but there isn’t enough of an opposing viewpoint to allow for an informed opinion. The images of Newton’s work are all that is offered, in the end, to consider and there is definitely an artistic vision at work here. Whether you believe it is art or misogyny is going to depend on you.

REASONS TO SEE: The images are compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really biographical so much as an exhibition of his work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of nudity, some sexuality and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Newton’s ashes are interred three plots down from Marlene Dietrich in Berlin.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Times of Bill Cunningham
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Opus of an Angel

Meet Me in Montenegro


Taking that leap of faith.

Taking that leap of faith.

(2014) Romance (The Orchard) Alex Holdridge, Linnea Saasen, Rupert Friend, Jennifer Ulrich, Stuart Manashil, Mia Jacob, Ben Braun, Lena Ehlers, Kate Mackeson, Mathieu van den Berk, Deborah Ann Woll, Rod Ben Zeev, Ty Hodges, Reza Sixo Safai, Wayne Nickel, Victoria Johnston, Tomoko Nakasato, Max Pierangeli, Natalie Gelman, Brent Florence, Jules Amana, Twink Caplan. Directed by Alex Holdridge and Linnea Saasen

Romance in the age of social media is no easy proposition. Millennials have something of a cocoon around them; the anonymity of the Internet, the constant presence of electronic connection via cell phones and tablets, the somewhat impersonal mode of online dating – it’s a wonder that anyone hooks up at all.

Anderson (Holdridge) is an American screenwriter who has seen through the facade of traditional courtship and has declared that romance is dead, and from his own perspective he’s not wrong. He continues to obsess about Lina (Saasen), a Norwegian dancer he met on a trip to the Balkans with whom he had a torrid love affair, only to have her leave him a note “Let’s leave on a high note” on the beach without further explanation and thus she pirouettes out of his life.

Racking his brain as to what he might have done wrong to drive her away from him like that, his budding film career has stalled and he’s deep in credit card debt. He’s taking one last shot, this time making a science fiction film called Supercollider (an excellent name for a film by the way) and is meeting with an actor in Berlin who might be able to give him the cache needed to get the project made. He’s staying with friends Stephen (Friend), an English ex-pat whose attempt to start up a coffee shop ended up in failure, and his girlfriend Friederike (Ulrich) who is growing frustrated at Stephen’s chronic unemployment. Still, Stephen’s offhand suggestion that the two of them go to a sex club and have a four-some with another couple hasn’t fallen on deaf ears; to his horror, Friederike has called his bluff and is planning to take him up on the offer that very weekend, leaving an awkward shopping trip for Stephen and Anderson to find proper sexy attire for Stephen for the club.

While in Berlin, Anderson bumps into Lina who has been dancing in Berlin since the two broke up. He’s only there for a few days and she’s leaving herself to take up an artist residency in Budapest. They decide to spend some time together and in doing so, some of the old sparks begin to resurface. Anderson has a streak of self-sabotage in him and delivers one of the most unusual script pitches ever seen on film to the astonished actor; the rest of the weekend in Berlin would be a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. Will Anderson be able to rescue himself from crushing credit card debt and resurrect his career? More importantly, will his romance with Lina work out or is romance truly dead?

This isn’t your typical romance, which is definitely a good thing. Holdridge and Saasen have a natural chemistry together which makes their onscreen romance believable, job one for any romance, comedy or otherwise. I hesitated to label this a romantic comedy; while there are definitely some funny moments, this is more of a romantic dramedy slice of life thing, a glimpse into the inner workings of a relationship without getting either too cloying or too clinical. This is real love folks, circa 2015.

Holdridge has got the anti-romantic sad-sack writer role down pat. His smile is a bit wistful, revealing some of his inner torment and uncertainty; yet confronted with the perpetrator of his self-doubt he is perfectly willing to take the plunge once again (literally). At the opening of the film, we see him doing a cliff dive into the Baltic in the title town as he narrates “This was the last time I felt truly alive.” That’s some powerful motivation right there and it feels pretty natural as romance films go.

Berlin plays a central role in the film and it is a different side of the city that we get to see. Mostly we here in the States only see Berlin in spy thrillers; we’re used to the alleyways and abandoned buildings but this is a city where people actually live and we get a chance to peek in on their lives as well. Robert Murphy delivers some gorgeous cinematography, giving the city character but also the film as well; he’s a talent to keep an eye on definitely.

The movie’s ending is a bit cheesy, which is a shame because the rest of the story is actually mature as hell, a refreshing change from normal Hollywood romances in which the emotional range is somewhat limited and the story contrived. For most of the movie, this feels like lives truly lived in and that gives us more insight into the relationship than those that feel manufactured. Even certain indie romances suffer from an over-abundance of twee cliches but thankfully that’s not the case here.

I jotted down in my notebook that this is a bit of an anti-romance in many ways. There is some speechifyin’ about the nature of romance and the philosophy of love which gives what is in essence a rather simple and charming movie an occasionally unwelcome gloss. However, the good news is that this is a solid movie that occasionally rises above the tropes of its predecessors and gives us more real insight into modern love than many other movies with bigger budgets and better-known faces. If you’re looking for a nice romantic evening with that certain indie-loving someone, this might just be a meeting you’ll want to take.

REASONS TO GO: Holdridge has the sad-sack romantic down pat. Gorgeous cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Ending a bit hokey. Some pretentious pontificating.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild language and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Holdridge and Saasen not only co-starred and co-directed the film but also co-wrote it based on their own experiences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Copenhagen
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Terminator: Genisys