VOD film review: Helmut Newton: The Bad and The Beautiful
Leslie Byron Pitt | On 18, Dec 2020
Director: Gero von Boehm
Cast: Isabella Rossellini, Charlotte Rampling, Catherine Deneuve
Watch Helmut Newton: The Bad and The Beautiful online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Virgin Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
As an introduction to the life and works of infamous fashion photographer Helmut Newton, The Bad and The Beautiful does its job. Gero von Boehm’s film portrays its subject in a rather matter-of-fact style. This allows photography enthusiasts and newcomers to not only absorb some of Newton’s most famous images but also has enough archival footage of the man himself for viewers to catch a glimpse of his personality. On the spikier matter on whether Newton’s provocative “Porno Chic” images were misogynistic, the film gets cloudier. It is interesting to see the film not shy away from the subject, but those going into a film which is made in part with the Helmut Newton association and expecting something particularly damning may be disappointed.
The Bad and The Beautiful give a rather basic overview of Newton’s life. Most of the talk on his early years appears in the movie relatively later – a peculiar decision that, while important, slows down the briskness of the documentary. Newton was born in 1920s Germany into a Jewish family and fled Nazi Germany in 1938. In archive footage, he mentions his obsession with images as well as his admiration of Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. While this is not the overall focus of Newton and the film, it delivers a potent insight into a photographer reframing and repurposing his curiosities.
The Cure’s Picture of You is a notable song choice on the film’s soundtrack particularly the opening lyrics that the film slyly includes: “I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you, That I almost believe that they’re real, I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you, That I almost believe that the pictures, Are all I can feel.” The lyrics reveal their importance later on when the film shows an interview clip of Susan Sontag making accusations of Newton’s images of being a misogynist in person. It the kind of moment that you could easily see viewers pumping their fists righteously as a “gotcha” moment. The moment with Sontag is so deft as she is careful to separate the creation from the creator.
Such moments in the film almost look to penetrate something deeper, only to exasperate with more questions. In the documentary, Newton claims in his own words that he had no interest in the model’s personal lives and seemingly felt the relationships with the subjects to be anything but the work. And yet at other points, he reduces the women to body parts and in doing so highlights and bolsters what could be considered a disregard for women.
Sontag’s claim of misogyny could also be seen as dismissive to the women who took part in his shoots and bring across their important insights. In talking-head interviews, Isabella Rossellini brings to light how one views the body in turn casts a view on whether we can view the work favourably. A moment with Nadja Auermann details how a photograph she took with Newton involving a fake swan led to complaints to French Vogue and claims of animal cruelty and bestiality with the image referencing the mythical story The Lede and the Swan. While the myth holds its controversy, Auermann makes it clear that many writing in to complain did not know the reference. It is a telling moment that remarks on the sensitivity of viewership upon the type of imagery Newton could create.
None of the models have a bad word to say about Newton, and all have strong and constructive views on the images themselves, what it was like working with him and what they felt about what they did. Some of the best moments of the film come from these talking heads. For the models – in particular, Grace Jones and Isabella Rossellini – they are quick to note the wit and storytelling capabilities of the images. In turn, each model highlights if not how safe they felt with Newton as a photographer, but the agency that the shoot gave them.
Of course, so much of this is in the eye of the beholder. For those with an interest in photography, in particular Eroticism, it is easy and enjoyable to see the power and wit that comes from Netwon’s transgressive imagery. That the film has enough footage of Newton as a charming and relatable man is beneficial. The photograph of a 17-year-old Claudia Schiffer dressed as a schoolgirl being offered sweets by the much older Newton is, to this writer, amusing. However, much of the wit comes from knowing the person who is in the shot. It is an image that feels lucky to have been made when it did.
The Bad and the Beautiful takes great lengths to show Newton, not in fawning praise but, like so many creatives, a person seemingly searching for something through complicated transgressions. Through the film, countless amounts of images are seen framing women as sexual and domineering with men often in servitude and as secondary subjects. It is fascinating to observe when the Riefenstahl comparison is considered. The film also bears in mind that June Newton, Helmut’s wife and photographer in her own right, oversaw most of his projects. Von Boehm’s highlighting of a series of images involving Newton shooting a nude model with June looking on in the corner of the frame provides a moment of potency. It brings into mind what Isabella Rossellini describes earlier in the film: the conflict between men’s arousal of women and how that can create fear due to how vulnerable it can make them. Looking at June in those images, it feels like she is keeping her man in check. For all the damning claims of misogyny that is thrown at Newton, The Bad and the Beautiful wants to let us know that, in many people’s eyes, the women held the cards. That said, in the eyes of the man himself, he would have said that he does not care. An intriguing documentary.