As a member of a 1950s camera club, the screenwriter Buck Henry snapped a small handful of the 500,000 photographs for which Bettie Page supposedly sat … well, sat and knelt and cha-cha'd and got trussed up in bondage gear. Henry's written of the peculiar contours of the pinup model's life story and legend—"a morality tale with no discernible moral, not much plot, and a lead character who is at best elusive." In The Notorious Bettie Page (Picturehouse), the director Mary Harron, working from a script she wrote with Guinevere Turner, doesn't solve the inherent problems of that narrative, but she evades them quite elegantly. She's made a poem instead of a biopic, an ode to intuition, iconography, seamed stockings, and star power.
The movie picks up in Times Square in 1955, where copies of girlie mags on the order of Bachelor, Titter, Whisper, Wink, and Flirt line the walls of an adult bookstore. One of the trench-coated patrons asks the shopkeeper if he's got anything "different." Nine years before, in the L.A. of The Big Sleep, Philip Marlowe had found evidence of Carmen Sternwood performing something unspeakable for a still camera, but here the pictures of beaming Bettie are pretty tame: She wears a top, a bottom, tall boots, and heavy rope. However, this customer is a Fed, and this is a bust. Sen. Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn), fresh from defending the youth of America from corruption by comic books, has turned his attention to pornography. Our first gander at Gretchen Mol's Bettie Page in the flesh—a pan from the ankles up to the signature bangs—comes as she's waiting outside of Kefauver's hearing room.
Because we've already seen Ray and Walk the Line, we're prepared for Page's Southern childhood to be filled with the word of the Lord and marked by trauma. There's the implication that young Bettie's father abused her back in Nashville. She suffers a bad first marriage to a hometown boy and, later, a sexual assault. But when Page's husband slaps her, Harron lets the blow look blatantly stagy. You soon get the idea that you're watching something sprung from a Cindy Sherman film still and that Harron regards the whole postwar world of saddle shoes, switchboards, and milkshakes a bit archly. The movie doesn't exactly wink at its conventions and artificiality, but it does give them extra charm and depth.
Freeing herself from the constraints of the South, Page takes the bus to New York City in 1949 in hopes of launching herself as actress. Sweetly, touchingly, she isn't any good; self-consciousness wrecks her exercises, and stiffness mars her auditions. Yet her ability to connect on film is such that she reinvests meaning in the cliché about making love to the camera. Her figure is good, and her black hair is striking, but the point is that she's pert all over. A part-time photographer discovers her strolling the beach at Coney Island, takes her back to his studio, and teaches her how to pad her bra and wear her hair for maximum impact.
Then it's on to an unmatched career in cheesecake and an odd sort of secret superstardom. For Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) and his half-sister Paula (Lili Taylor, speaking fluent Brooklynese) she shot the kinky stuff that would get the government's attention—scenes involving spanking, whips, and shoes far less outrageous than the cone-heeled Lanvins that are in this spring. After the Kefauver hearings, the heroine retires, and Harron leaves her having again found God, which isn't the same as redemption, because chaste Page hasn't done anything to be redeemed from. And where a more pretentious director would have turned this movie into a disquisition on what, back in school, we used to call the male gaze—or, worse, some culture-war statement—Harron just wants to call your eye to an interesting woman.
No moral, little plot, a lead character deliberately left unknowable. What you have instead is Gretchen Mol, whose job it is to embody a sex symbol whose appeal is difficult to pin down, much less duplicate. To be at once approachable and a vixen is a paradox, and Mol incarnates it beautifully in this low-key riddle of a film.