Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner don’t give Bettie Page enough credit.
For most or all of “The Notorious Bettie Page,” their inert if tantalizing profile of the distinctively coiffed icon, the filmmakers portray Page as a passive figure, routinely victimized and exploited and blissfully noncomplicit during her run as a 1950s soft-core fetish queen. In short, they’ve turned her into the whip-wielding lost cousin of Chauncey Gardiner in “Being There,” and while that serves a solid artistic vision, it doesn’t always make for propulsive storytelling.
Director Harron (“I Shot Andy Warhol”) and co-writer Turner, who previously worked together on the epochal anti-yuppie screed “American Psycho,” pick up the action during a 1955 Senate investigation into juvenile delinquency, where Page’s bondage photos are the talk of the day.
David Strathairn plays the presiding congressional inquisitor, which, coupled with Harron’s period-faithful black-and-white photography, ironically brings to mind the actor’s Oscar-nominated work in “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
While the Senate debate rages, Bettie (Gretchen Mol) waits in the foyer to give her testimony. Meanwhile, the filmmakers lead us through a steady, episodic overview of her cloistered Deep South upbringing (sprinkled with insinuations of sexual abuse), abortive first marriage (her husband, played by Norman Reedus of “The Boondock Saints,” hits her) and pilgrimage to New York, where she meets the part-time photographer who suggests concealing her high, broad forehead by combing forward her bangs (later to become her trademark).
While studying to be an actress, Bettie finds her way into the world of private camera clubs, a fascinating spectacle in which scantily clad models pose for an eager platoon of amateur shutterbugs in somebody’s living room, or in the park. Ultimately, Page is swooped up by Irving and Paula Klaw (played by Chris Bauer and Lili Taylor, respectively), friendly smut pioneers who distribute Page’s fetish pics (quaint by today’s standards) to wealthy clients. Bettie, ever the God-fearing mama’s girl, rarely thinks twice about the wrist restraints and whips. It’s camp. Harmless.
“The Notorious Bettie Page” makes for a fine, fascinating study in social tolerances, but what do we learn of Bettie herself? She’s a pleaser, that’s for sure, and maybe a little dim, despite her penchant for good grades. But is she so outlandishly naive that she could fail to recognize the lurid, fetishistic impulses stirred by her work? It doesn’t compute, especially for a woman who experienced abuse first-hand.
Consequently, we have to wait until the last few frames to find a glimmer of moral sentience in Mol’s pretty features, leaving us to wonder how much sharper, dirtier and challenging the movie might have been if she had betrayed anything resembling psychological depth. For fans of Harron and Turner – arguably the top feminist filmmaking tandem working today – it will prove undernourishing. In the past, they’ve shaped their characters with a serrated edge. Here, they use a butter knife.