Avoiding Interiority

Mary Harron and Gretchen Mol make 'Bettie Page' into a strange, yet thought-provoking movie

Writer/director Mary Harron's American Psycho was one of my favorite films of the last 10 years, so I was excited to see her The Notorious Bettie Page, and not only because it featured all of Gretchen Mol.

It turns out that Bettie Page is only like American Psycho in the inventiveness and effectiveness of the directing. It's a flatter, less immediately engaging film, but it's also got a psychological sophistication that's rare in a Hollywood that's still getting over its Freudian hangover.

Bettie Page was a notorious (see the title!) pin-up model in the '50s. She'd be just that and nothing more if it weren't for the way hipsters and coolsumers of all stripes started championing her in the late '80s, turning her into some kind of spanking goth queen of mystical retro sexual delight.

So I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone made a movie about her. Luckily, Mary Harron got to be that one, and she made a very wise choice in casting Gretchen Mol in the lead.

Mol looks nothing like Ms. Page, except that they have very similar bodies and, apparently, an equal willingness to bare all. But Mol's performance is freakishly weird and perfect for the part.

Harron decided to portray Page as something of a cipher. Though she speaks about her thoughts and feelings, she really has no discernible inner life in the film.

And the film reflects this in its structure as well. Reining itself into a tight 91 minutes, The Notorious Bettie Page does a lot with suggestion and nothing with exposition, which is really how film is supposed to be done.

But sometimes, it's cut so tight that it's almost disorienting. Apparently, Ms. Page suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her father, but it's only elliptically presented, and only in one scene where her dad tells the 14-year-old Bettie to come upstairs with him, and she looks unhappy.

It's a testament to Harron's directing that the sense of this scene is so clear, and it's truly odd by today's standards that this abuse is never alluded to in the rest of the film.

There's also a gang rape, which is handled about as tastefully as that subject can be handled, and again, this simply vanishes into the background as Bettie goes on to move to the big city where, gosh darn it, she's gonna be star!

The whole thing has the feel of a 1940s musical, and Mol plays the ingénue to a tee. She has an otherworldly girlishness that mixes blankness with perkiness, determination and something that would be naiveté if it didn't seem like Page always knew exactly what she was doing. In fact, she seems most like a space alien who's come to Earth, studied all about our culture, and learned to fit in and mimic the external forms of human life, but has no psychological theory of human behavior.

Thus, her past seems to have no influence on her later life. It'd be hard for people like us, raised in a psychological culture, not to read her sexual abuse into her later career, but Harron does a good job of keeping those things separate, which only adds to the mystery of Bettie Page.

Harron reflects something of Page's immutability by the alteration of film stock. Much of the movie is in black and white, but the film changes quality drastically between the early scenes in Tennessee and the later ones in New York. Then, when Bettie goes to Miami to do some nude shots, she's suddenly in color. After this, she travels back and forth between New York and Miami, from black and white to color, and from one boyfriend to another, with absolute impunity and absolutely no commentary.

Ultimately, she's called to testify before a U.S. Senate committee on pornography headed by Estes Kefauver. Luckily, she's never called to the stand, and that seems the interpretive key to the entire film. The film is not an inner testimony, or a testimony of any sort. It's a life as a series of events and effects.

Which leaves a lot of questions. Did her New York boyfriend know about her Miami boyfriend? Since she maintains a strong Christian faith throughout her life, one wonders if she was sleeping with or even living with these men. The film only hints at these things, and only really opens up her inner life in one truly amazing scene.

While in the middle of a bondage shoot, tied to two posts and with a gag in her mouth, Bettie is asked by photographer John Willie (Jared Harris) if God would approve of what she's doing. He removes the ball gag and unties her arms, but she remains tied by other ropes, and wearing '50s fetish gear, as she talks about her relation to the Deity and her theological commitments.

And yet she seems to take no notice of her surroundings or her clothes as she does this. Again, the almost-extraterrestrial manner in which this character reacts to her circumstances is thoughtful, witty and somehow deeper than the standard psychologizing that we're so used to.

The way this movie neatly avoids interiority in telling the story of a life might be indicative of the cultural shift away from a discredited Freudianism to a yet-to-be-discredited cognitive science model of human behavior. Either way, it's perfectly conceived and executed, though, of necessity, a little flatter than most films, and thus a little less engaging than it would have been if Harron had chosen a more traditional route. Still, you'll leave the theater with a lot to think about, and no doubt you'll be impressed by Harron and Mol's remarkable gifts.

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