There were two criticisms of ‘The Look of Love’ that followed me into the cinema like a couple of Chihuahuas snapping at my ankles. The first was that Steve Coogan’s central performance was little more than Steve Coogan plays Alan Partridge playing Paul Raymond; the second was that the film lacks a moral centre.
Both are accurate. Both are kind of the point.
‘The Look of Love’ – an examination of the life of British porn baron Paul Raymond, from his money-spinning property deals to his notoriety as owner of “revue bars” (i.e. strip clubs) and publisher of top-shelf magazine ‘Men Only’ – is so effective in its evocative of the grim seediness of Soho in the 1970s and 1980s (the principle decades in which the film is set) that the comic baggage Coogan will always be fated to bring to any role is a positive relief. His arch delivery of much of his dialogue sees him firmly in on the act. Having said that, a knowing directorial decision to play on his established persona should not detract from the due acknowledgement: this is Coogan’s best outing as an actor thus far.
The facts of Raymond’s life (as espoused by the film) boil down to a simple series of events: Raymond makes some serious money as a property baron, fancies himself as an impresario, opens a member’s only nightclub featuring exotic dancers, makes a shitload more money, drives his choreographer wife Jean (Anna Friel) away with all his philandering, takes up with soft porn starlet Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton), and invests financially and emotionally in his daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots) as his corporate successor, only for her to go off the rails in spectacularly self-destructive style.
It’s referenced on at least four occasions in Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay that Paul Raymond was born Jeffrey Quinn. That he reinvented himself on arrival in London as a young man, shedding his Liverpudlian background, is a snippet of backstory that Raymond delivers as well-rehearsed press-conference banter in two scenes set years apart. The inference is that ‘Paul Raymond’ was an elaborate façade that Jeffrey Quinn disappeared into. It’s a reading born out by a despairingly revealing sequence where his son from an early, previously unmentioned marriage, turns up at Raymond’s vulgarly over-designed penthouse and tries to learn something about the father he’s never known. Raymond gives him a slap up meal, breaks open some good champagne, and can’t wait to show him the door.
Coogan’s performance gives us Paul Raymond as, variously, a little-boy-lost charmer who (it would seem) invested his property millions in shows and wank mags purely to meet girls; a raconteur who throws out erudite conversational snippets and self-deprecating one-liners and effortlessly manipulates his associates into doing his bidding; and a man who, for all that he indulges his daughter to the max and dotes on his grandchildren, has a complete moral disconnect even when his lifestyle coils its licentious tentacles around those dearest to him. The two most shocking scenes portray Debbie’s cocaine use. In the first, Raymond catches her using for the first time, and his only admonition is that cheap shit bought on the street is cut and could contain anything – “if you’re going to do this, buy the good stuff”. In the second, Debbie announces, distraught, that she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer. Dad and daughter do a big fat line of commiseratory coke together.
Poots knocks it out of the stadium as Debbie Raymond. Her winningly gauche performance of the eponymous ballad over the end credits gives the film what small claim it has to a human element. She nails the character’s fluctuation between intense vulnerability and fierce competitiveness. In her scenes with Coogan, ‘The Look of Love’ has the focus of a Jacobean tragedy: the misguided patriarch, his personal relationships self-sabotaged, tries to justify his wanton excesses by living vicariously through his daughter, only to broker her destruction because she is unable to survive the very lifestyle that sustains him.
All told, ‘The Look of Love’ is downbeat and then some. Director Michael Winterbottom makes no bones that, for all Raymond’s protestations that he wasn’t a pornographer, ‘Men Only’ was a grubby and unaesthetic delivery system for gynaecologically blunt images of women. Two ‘Men Only’ photoshoots are depicted and, for all the T&A on display, they’re utterly unerotic. Same goes for the handful of sex scenes, bodies stacked up against each other like marble slabs.
In scene after scene, Raymond tries to convince people he’s living the dream. He name-drops; he parades his nubile girlfriends and the gadgets that litter his apartment; he laps it up when someone likens his penthouse to a set from a Bond film. He goes everywhere by Rolls Royce. He employs a chauffeur. And in scene after scene, Winterbottom takes a scalpel to his lifestyle: cuts through the pretence and the egomania and the self-delusion; hacks away at the absurdities – some of them pathetically funny, others just plain sad – of what a man becomes when he lets money define him.
Hence the necessity of Steve Coogan and the Alan Partridge persona. It takes a comedian to make all of this palatable. And it takes a comedian to give us, with just the right degree of pathos, the tears of a clown as the curtain falls.