It’s palpably disheartening when the protagonist of a film is introduced to cocaine. This disappointment is not borne from concern for the character, but instead surfaces because you now know every step of the well-trodden path to come. The introduction of drug use pinpoints the exact moment when someone has risen almost as far as they’re going to, leaving only their long, unavoidable descent to come. It’s an event that comes midway through The Look of Love, and in structuring its narrative in this manner, the film joins a distinct sub-genre that encompasses pictures like Goodfellas and Boogie Nights, where damaged people become successful through disreputable means, and cocaine acts as a hubris-symbolising, tragedy-inducing catalyst for their inevitable downfall.
The fourth project in the fruitful collaboration between Steve Coogan and director Michael Winterbottom, The Look of Love is a deliberate twin of their earlier work 24 Hour Party People. Like that film, The Look of Love is a portrait of an unconventional Northern mogul courting controversy and success to the detriment of those around him. Dissimilarly, however, the film leaves a less pleasant taste in the mouth afterwards. While The Look of Love possesses 24 Hour Party People’s capacity to be funny and insightful, the story is by necessity less warm, and told without the same affection.
Documenting the life of entrepreneur Paul Raymond, The Look of Love follows Raymond’s rise from a post-war mind-reading act to becoming Britain’s richest man in the early 90s, controlling an adult publishing empire and owning most of Soho. Echoing loosening attitudes to sexuality, Raymond slides from revue impresario to pornographer, his venues morphing from theatres producing gratuitous plays to strip clubs. Raymond is complicit in the coarsening of his trade, barely minding as long as his titles keep selling and he owns more and more property.
Winterbottom captures Soho in its many stages of evolution, grounding the film in specific details like its little side alleys and low-ceiling offices. The production design, hair, make up and cinematography all excel at depicting the march of years (the way Received Pronunciation fades from usage is a particularly neat touch), but the true markers of change come from Matt Greenhalgh’s script: it's easy to place the year by how people react when Raymond mentions his association with the Beatles, or to gauge his reputation and desperation to be hip by the way he brings it up.
Greenhalgh intelligently observes how Raymond disguises the emotional distance he keeps from everyone in his life, but this makes the character difficult to empathise with. Never terribly interested in artistry, he has a lack of passion for anything beyond pleasing himself. Greenhalgh suggests that perhaps Raymond is empty save for his distorted, corrupting love for his daughter Debbie. Although Greenhalgh occasionally can't help turning Raymond into Alan Partridge for the sake of a good line, he is adept at succinctly defining his characters: early in the film Raymond offers to buy a round of champagne and quickly clarifies "house champagne", a laugh at his expense but also one that demonstrates the prudence that allowed him to become so successful.
While it would be satisfying to see Raymond challenged by inner turmoil, this detachment is intentional, and in no way due to Coogan's excellent performance: his absolute self belief and ability to charmingly weather criticism is what allows him to become so successful. However, as the corrosive, static centre around which the film revolves, Raymond is less compelling than the characters surrounding him. Raymond never really changes, as patterns repeat themselves again and again and he always escaping comeuppance, essentially because he owns everyone and everywhere around him. Instead, it is Imogen Poots’ portrayal of Debbie Raymond that lingers. Cursed by her inability to match her extraordinary father, she forms a co-dependent, symbiotic relationship with him, based on mutual neediness – his to be adored and hers to feel accomplished. Poots is wonderful in a role that in lesser hands might have been a film-sinking annoyance.
Towards the end of the film the endless scenes of sex and drug taking becoming extremely wearing, even boring, but the effect is intentional. Equipped with almost limitless money and the opportunity to indulge every whim, Raymond and his peers become unable to break free from a lifestyle they’ve long stopped enjoying, trudging on because there’s little else to do. At its best, The Look of Love is a skillfully-observed portrait of an area buffeted by the continual upheavals of the twentieth century, depicting sexual liberation compromised by canny, ruthless commodification.