The Notorious Bettie Page is a fetish film. But not the kind you think. With her loving treatment of1940s and 50s Americana, director Mary Harron puts the era on a pedestal and worships at its feet. It looks gorgeous. The black-and-white shots of New York City, hometown Tennessee and Betty’s now infamous bondage photos are intoxicating. When the film shifts into the pastel palette of the 50s and Betty’s Miami Beach photo sessions with Bunny Yeager I swooned. But…
While Harron has lovingly mimicked the stylistic quirks of the era in which Betty shimmied her way into America’s underground heart, she has also picked up some of the era’s more regrettable thematic conventions. Take the characters’ annoying penchant for repeating each other’s names in conversation as just a single example. Bettie herself is played with a sort of “aw shucksness” by Grethchen Mol, who while not able to totally capture Betty’s sweet/sultry dichotomy (who could, really?) disappears into the character often enough to keep us interested.
The real problem is the script. Perhaps in an effort to portray Betty in the best possible light, it glosses over any possibilities for emotional depth. In one key scene Betty is confronted by her husband over some bondage photos in a New York club. Then she’s inexplicably picking up a Latin beach bum in Miami. Had her marriage ended? Did her husband suddenly see her differently? Who knows. Similarly her first brief marriage is merely a montage of clichés. One of the most striking visual motifs is of Betty transposed onto the magazine covers she posed for, smiling, dancing and wiggling for the camera. She looks dazzling while confined within the rectangular borders of a photograph — an unfortunately apt metaphor for the film.
Opens April 14