The Notorious Bettie Page is one of those art house films that sound better in concept. Now, in saying “Art House” I’d like to formally define it because I throw the term around a lot in life, over lunch and in reviews. I’m a regular “Art House” connoisseur over here. So what the hell am I talking about? I define the genre as a film that doesn’t have major studio backing (though this one has HBO), won’t get an initial wide release, doesn’t have a huge budget or huge effects, and largely avoids big violent or sex scenes. Drug usage is okay though, in fact it’s sometimes encouraged to get you through missing everything else.
Where “Art House” thrives is on the edge of innovation, stuff that big studios won’t try and tackle for fear the general public won’t “get it” or the studio won’t “make a gazillion dollars” off of it. Where “Art House” dies is when it sinks into the screen like a library book, it doesn’t holler, it doesn’t whisper, instead it just fades away and recedes from your memory every second that passes after you see it. Sadly The Notorious Bettie Page is receding even as I write this review.
The Story of Bettie Page is a real life one, a 1950’s pin-up girl who wasn’t afraid to take nude pictures or pose in bondage. At the time this behavior was considered deviant and Bettie took a fair amount of heat for it. The film opens with Congress pulling out its own whip on the bondage industry and we are transported back in time to a kindler, gentler, far less sexy time.
Now, before we take easy shots at this film I’d like to commend the wonderful work by Gretchen Mol as Bettie Page. To say she carries the film would be an understatement. The strength of the work, hell maybe the only strength, is Gretchen as the lead role. Without her I can’t imagine where this project would have ended up. The film also looked very crisp in black and white and was very subtle and nuanced at times. If you are a Bettie Page fan it’s probably best if you stop reading right about now because those were the highlights for me.
What’s wrong with the movie? For starters it has no real point. Is it a rallying cry against censorship? No, not really. Is it the story of a courageous young pin-up who put it all on the line for her beliefs? Not according to the movie it’s not. It also sidles over to boring avenue and has a seat for long periods. It’s just not a well constructed or entertaining film for much of the 100 minute runing time.
So therein lays the problem when Art House all goes wrong. If it doesn’t have an edge it doesn’t have much entertainment value. This is a film with nudity all over the place that’s not the least bit sexy or fun. This is a film that should have had fun poking at folks with repressed sexuality but goes the route of giving them a fare shake instead. This is a film with a main character that’s never quite sure what she’s doing or what she stands for. What’s all that add up to? Well, not much at all.