The Look of Love is a deceiving name for Michael Winterbottom’s Paul Raymond (Coogan) biopic. Previously titled” The King of Soho”, it allows a peep show into the life of the porno pioneer and how his antics in the 1970s changed the heart of London’s west end forever, but it’s certainly devoid of the charm that its title might suggest.
Despite its comedic cast, which could quite easily double as a lineup for Mock the Week, the film is decidedly straight-faced and low on laughs. The most notable of these big names is Coogan who brings a much more serious edge to his character than audiences expecting pervy Partidge might expect.
The role of Raymond is a tough one to pull off and Coogan does a decent job of striking a balance between melancholy and sleaze. Instead of concentrating on his empire Winterbottom is far more interested in his life behind the curtain, especially his many damaged female relationships. He’s the father to a number of children with a number of women but his relationship with his daughter Debbie (Poots) carries the most dramatic weight. He spoils her in a very literal sense: buys her all the cake she wants, gives her a starring role in one of his sordid shows, even gives her a line of cocaine to ease the pain of child birth. We witness how his inability to connect ultimately fractures his chances of becoming a responsible father figure and the more he reaches out to Debbie the more troubled she becomes.
Dramatically the film has a gentle touch and it rarely points a judgmental finger at any of its characters. Emotionally however, it holds us at arm’s length, much like its focal character, and we never quite feel like we’ve fully got to know who Raymond really is.
At one point when he’s directing one of his many nude models, in this case his ex-wife Jean (Friel), he exclaims ‘No love, just lust’ which more or less sums up his own outlook. Moments like this make Raymond extremely difficult to like meaning that spending time with him is a hollow experience. By the end of The Look of Love we’ve seen so much full frontal nudity and casual drug use that we can’t help but feel desensitised. But if anything this is an empathetic device which lets us see things through the perspective of the protagonist. It’s hard to write this off as unintentional considering the tenacious director’s genre-bending back catalogue of work.
It’s an unusual little project with an anonymous title and a misleading cast and it doesn’t mark a career highlight for anyone involved. It’s not without its moments of intrigue and there are some commendable performances, especially from Imogen Poots, but unlike its subject it won’t attract queues or make headlines.