The heightened look of cinematic history: Excess and costume in Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love
Bruce Bennett, Lancaster University UK.
(This paper was delivered at Screening Style: Costume, Cinema and Performance, a symposium on costume design I organised with Dr Catherine Spooner (Dept. of English and Creative Writing, Lancaster). Details about the event can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Screening-Style-Costume-Cinema-and-Performance/1433032680260289)
Michael Winterbottom has form when it comes to the costume drama. From his first theatrically released feature film, Jude (1996), an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, it is a genre he has returned to repeatedly in inventive ways.
He has directed three adaptations of Hardy novels, including The Claim (2000), a treatment of the Mayor of Casterbridge relocated to the Californian gold rush, and Trishna (2011) a reworking of Tess of the D’Urbevilles, that situates most of the action in contemporary Mumbai.
The Claim, Trishna, A Cock and Bull Story
He has also directed a playful adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s metanarrative novel Tristram Shandy. Titled A Cock and Bull Story (2005), rather than a straight adaptation, Winterbottom’s film begins by showing us scenes from the film, before zooming out to focus on the chaotic film shoot as the film-makers try to cope with professional rivalry between actors, a restricted budget, the philandering star, Steve Coogan, as well as the broader problem of transposing a vast novel into the frame of a film.
The recent past restaged as costume drama: 24 Hour Party People
Winterbottom treats costume drama as an opportunity for formal and thematic experimentation as well as a means of narrating alternative histories (as in the 2002 costume drama, 24 Hour Party People’s account of Manchester music subcultures). His work is generally characterised by a self-consciously ambivalent relation to genre, and in relation to the costume drama – which is so closely associated with British cinema traditions, with discourses of national and cultural identity, and with the narration of history – this experimentation has a register beyond simple formal innovation.
The British-Iranian screenwriter Hossein Amini, who wrote Jude (and went on to write an adaptation of Henry James’ Wings of a Dove as well as Nicolas Refn’s Drive ) explained in an interview that their intention was to destroy the heritage film from within (Bennett 2014: 113). This comment is a key to understanding Winterbottom’s approach to film-making more broadly since it often involves processes of disassembly and recombination, juxtaposing incongruous elements from quite distinct genres; what is at stake in the demolition of the heritage film in particular is an assault upon some of the apparent continuities and ossified institutions of British cultural heritage and an examination of Winterbottom’s films that have a consistently critical relationship to their cultural context gives us a lens through which to examine that context too.
Most academic writing on the costume film begins with the problem of categorical definition, triangulating the terms, “literary adaptation”, “heritage film”, and “costume film” or “costume drama”. While these terms may be defined differently they tend to be applied to the same group of films, and in this sense are, to some extent, substitutable. In this paper I follow Julianne Pidduck’s decision to go with the term costume drama:
‘I use the term ‘costume drama’ as a refusal of historical or literary authenticity. ‘Costume’ suggests the pleasures and possibilities of masquerade – the construction, constraint and display of the body through clothes […] Costume is inextricable from historical discourses of the self and costume drama’s play of identity and masquerade retrospectively explores Western subjectivity through the characters of the nineteenth century novel and historical biography […] If drama suggests an intensification of everyday life, then costume film plays out vivid episodes within the frame of the past’ (Pidduck 2004: 3).
The value of the term costume drama is also in its reach, implicitly acknowledging the transnational, cross-media status of the form, which migrates repeatedly across the boundary between film, TV and stage (just as directors, actors, screenwriters and designers move between the three media).
This paper focuses on Winterbottom’s most recent film, The Look of Love (2013), whose title indicates that this is a film about popular visual culture’s mediation of intimacy. My argument is that The Look of Love is a contemporary costume drama that explores the various visual and semantic functions and registers of costume on screen. This defines the category of costume drama expansively, since it is not a literary adaptation and is set in the late twentieth century, but I suggest that the film uses the frame of the costume drama and the narrative play of masquerade and identity within a biographical account of a historically significant (albeit marginal and unattractive) figure to recount a rather less palatable history of the relatively recent past.
Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan)
A biography of the British pornographer and property developer, Paul Raymond, it follows his career, progressing from running a burlesque show in the 1950s through to opening a strip club and staging lavish West End shows in the 1960s, going on to purchase and relaunch the pornographic magazine Men Only in the early 1970s. At the centre of the narrative is Raymond’s relationship with his daughter, Debbie, who died of a drug overdose in the 1990s. The film is told in flashback with a grey-haired Raymond looking back over his life from his ornately furnished but empty bachelor pad, and the implicit allusion to Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) here becomes clear later as Raymond attempts to use his wealth to establish his moderately talented daughter as a star, just as the publisher Kane did with his lover Susan Alexander. Raymond commissions an unprecedentedly expensive musical placing her in the starring role, but has to cancel the show soon afterwards due to its mounting losses.
This is a moralistic, cautionary tale: a story about excess as Raymond’s life becomes increasingly debauched; A Rake’s Progress relocated to the second half of the 20th century, that finds its cinematic parallels in the decadence of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). A serial adulterer and heavy cocaine user, Raymond’s second marriage collapses, his daughter dies from an overdose after a wretched, abused life marked by expulsion from school, drug addiction and cancer, and Raymond is left, at the end of the film, extremely wealthy, but alone.
The semantic functions of Costume
The costumes were designed by British designer Stephanie Collie, whose most recent work was in the BBC TV series Peaky Blinders (2013), a gangster drama set in Birmingham in the 1920s, and in this film they have several functions, as if in a systematic demonstration of the semantics of screen costumes.
The first of these is to serve as a ‘historical index’. The narrative is focused narrowly upon Paul Raymond and his family, friends and business partners rather than on the broader social context and monumentalised historical events that might typically function as markers on a historical timeline (such as the Profumo affair, the Aldermaston marches, or the miner’s strike) and so the changing style of the characters’ clothes is a key visual indicator of the historical shifts that take place in the film.
One of the common paradoxes of the costume drama is that, although they are dressed in period costume, characters are often presented as quite contemporary figures in terms of performance styles and language-use. It is often as if we are watching time travellers who have been transported back to the past and are dressed in a sort of historicist drag. This paradox is crucial to the appeal of the costume film, which makes the past seem puzzlingly strange on the one hand, but at the same time collapses historical distance by framing it accessibly in terms of contemporary personae.
Costume – and particular fashions or styles of costume – thus have a crucial function as the means of visualising history. Colour-change is also key to articulating this historical shift within this film, the colour of the costumes operating in conjunction with the colour grading of the film image. As the narrative moves from the 1950s to the 1960s, the film shifts from monochrome to a colour scheme that simulates slightly faded colour film stock, and the overall colour cast of the costumes becomes warmer, dominated by orange, umber and golden yellows as the narrative moves into the 1970s (the colour scheme of a Benson & Hedges or Johnnie Walker magazine advert from the period).
Colour-change as historical index (the 1950s and the 1970s)
Historical change and the passage of time is thus rendered in this film in terms of shifting surfaces and changing visual textures, both in the sense of the graphic composition of the image as well as in the literal sense of the depiction of fabrics.
The manipulation of costume is a means of rendering history as image, and in so far as fur and skin are visual motifs here, we might also think about the haptics of the cinematic history-image. The visual textures of costume can perhaps suggest the embodied feel of history too, such that we might associate the cinematic middle-ages with leather, linen and hemp, and the industrial 19th century with heavy cotton and damp wool, taffeta, lace and bone, and the near-future with lycra, nylon and frictionless body-hugging smart fabrics.
The visual textures of the early 1970s: the haptic history-image – Raymond and Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton)
As well as measuring historical change, costume also functions as an indicator of changes within the characters – an expression both of the characters’ individualised identities and their relationship to other characters around them. In this respect, costume operates in a melodramatic register as the externalized rendering of a character’s interiority.
As Raymond moves through the film, his clothes become more colourful and more flamboyant. His make-up is modified too so that in the 1970s, he is moustachioed, with bleached blond hair, an artificial tan and sideburns. These alterations are not just an indicator of the passage of time – of changing fashions – but also an indicator that he is dressing in an increasingly self-conscious and self-consciously fashionable manner.
His outfits mark him out as visually distinct from others around him (bigger hair and collar) and they reinforce the depiction of him as both a narcissist and a fantasist as well as an inveterate self-promoter who takes every opportunity to remind other people of his wealth.
In this respect, Raymond’s costume indicates the performative aspect of this character, and thus costume has a double function here so that, rather than functioning as a simple sign of historical authenticity, Raymond’s costumes instead signify the questionable authenticity or inauthenticity of his persona; he is always performing. Raymond makes much of the fact that he is a self-made success and has never asked anybody for anything – he is also a name-dropper who repeatedly informs people that his luxury flat was designed by Ringo Starr – but it emerges in the course of the film that ‘Paul Raymond’ is a pseudonym. His real name is Jeffrey Quinn and he has an adult son from a former marriage, and so the persona of Paul Raymond is a self-made construction too, and in this respect, costume functions in conjunction with the fabulous interior design of his flat and his Rolls Royce with personalised number plate, to disguise Raymond’s real identity, assuming there is one behind this precarious identification with an idealised image. His partner, Amber, whom he hires as a stage performer and, later, as a model and writer in his magazine, also goes by a pseudonym, Fiona Richmond, and so the boundary between the private ‘authentic’ individual and the public persona inhabiting a crude, aspirational fantasy world of conspicuous wealth and erotic abandon is impossible to determine.
In interviews, Stephanie Collie has stated that a consistent strategy underpinning her design for film and television is what she terms a ‘heightened’ appearance – a slight exaggeration of the costumes in the reference photographs and illustrations she works from that works to collapse the historical gap between the spectator and the period represented. This involves the designer adapting the costumes to different physiques in a flattering way, and reducing some of the more extreme stylizations in line with contemporary fashions, It is clear from historical photographs of Raymond, for example, that Coogan’s appearance is not an exact copy but has been smoothed and streamlined.
Steve Coogan and the ‘real’ Paul Raymond
The heightened design aesthetic is thus not a matter of simple exaggeration or scaling up. It may be a case of the careful selection of clothes in a way that places emphasis upon particularly cutting-edge or transient fashions so that, for example, it might seem that every male character in a film set in the 1970s appears to wear a kipper tie, gold medallion, flared jeans, velvet jackets and large-collared shirts. Thus one effect of the heightened costume design aesthetic can be a cultural homogenisation and historical flattening, but what is at stake in this aesthetic is the successful co-ordination of the costumes with the film’s overall visual design, integrating the costume with the spectacular screen image, and also producing and modifying costumes so that they function narratively.
For example, in this film about excessive behaviour and excessive values, the progressive excess of Raymond’s predatory character is expressed through the increasingly colourful, and increasingly fashionable and loose clothes, and lengthening hair.
As a film about a pornographer, this is also a film about the erotic or titillating function of clothing that both conceals and delineates the contours of the body underneath. As Stella Bruzzi observes, in their preoccupation with repressed desire, period films tend to fetishize items of clothing as objects of displaced desire, ‘The power of clothes fetishism is that it exists on the cusp between display and denial, signalling as much a lack as a presence of sexual desire, through which it is especially relevant to films that depict a past, less ostensibly liberated age’ (Bruzzi 1997: 38). The Look of Love foregrounds the tensions at the core of the costume drama in its concern with the economies of sexual desire around the display of semi-clothed and unclothed bodies – progressing from the women quaintly dressed in body stockings posing in static tableaux at the beginning of the film through to the more hardcore photography of the later magazines. This takes place against the context of an apparently less liberated age, but what is arguably dramatised is not a liberal account of political emancipation so much as an account of the commodification of desire.
Although the film offers little direct commentary upon the business that makes Raymond very rich, his hypocrisy is made clear. He insists continually that he is not a pornographer but a businessman or entertainer, however when he casts his daughter as the star of the most expensive West End musical ever mounted, ‘Royalty Follies’, he insists that she remain clothed. The extent to which his hypocrisy is a sign of genuine self-delusion or a cynically and commercially pragmatic strategy in the face of legal proscriptions remains unclear but in a scene set in the 1960s, when Raymond is asked by a journalist how the female performers he employs in his nightclub feel about what they do, he explains that their job is to persuade the audience that they are enjoying themselves. ‘It’s a performance’, he remarks.
This passing comment is one of few moments where Raymond speaks directly and apparently openly about the business he works in and is thus a point at which the film’s commentary upon the culture of pornography becomes most explicit. We can understand this remark as a comment upon pornography in general – that it is a deceptive representational system, an illusion in which the performer’s nakedness is another layer of costume – this in the context of a film that is preoccupied with inauthenticity, exploitation and illusory surfaces.
One of the running motifs of Winterbottom’s films is a matter-of-fact realism in their treatment of sex and sexuality as an intrinsic element of intimate relationships, and a consistent rejection of the conventional cinematic codes of eroticism. Situated against this background we can understand The Look of Love as a component of an ongoing project concerned with the critical examination of the restricted conventions of cinematic sexuality. The film displays none of the nostalgia for an innocent, pre-AIDS sexual culture evident in its American counterpart, Boogie Nights (Anderson, 1997), nor the libertarian politics of The People vs Larry Flynt (Forman, 1996) that frames debates around the politics of pornography in the terms of heroic battles over freedom of expression. In The Look of Love, pornography is a matter of unglamorous business and cool exploitation, love is a matter of economic exchange.
This returns us to the opening question of generic categorisation (and Amini’s declaration of war against the heritage film). Against this history of generic transformation, we can understand the film’s concern with the business of pornography as a critical intervention in the configuration of the costume drama. If the costume drama is concerned with the rewriting of national histories, with a particular tendency to focus upon apparently significant historical moments, and if the costume drama also often celebrates national cultural heritage, then this film is a provocative contribution to that continuum of historical and cultural revisionism. Its account of the movement of pornographic publications and performance from the semi-legal margins of burlesque theatres in the 1950s to the cultural mainstream of late twentieth-century Britain takes place against the background of cultural liberalisation so that the apparently permissive culture of the late 1960s and 1970s offers Raymond ever-greater business opportunities. In this respect, the film belongs to the category of the self-reflexive post-heritage film outlined by Clare Monk, but whereas the films we might associate with that category are aligned through their literary allusions or stylistic and formal experimentation with elite culture, however risqué their content, The Look of Love is a film about irredeemably popular culture and has nothing of the cultural respectability of the costume dramas of Sally Potter, Jane Campion, Catherine Breillat, Philip Kaufman, Peter Greenaway or Derek Jarman.
The film begins and ends with the elderly Raymond driving through London with his granddaughter, proudly pointing out to her the numerous properties around the capital that he owns. This is an indication of his self-created success and perhaps a means of acquiring respectability, but this is also a means by which the film makes a key point about the mainstreaming of pornography, since his enormous wealth is the clearest sign of its cultural assimilation. The film ends with a series of captioned stills updating the stories of the characters beyond the point at which the film ends (in 1992). In these we learn that Raymond was, for a period, the richest man in the country, a fact that perhaps invites us to shift our understanding of post-war Britain through its insistence upon the cultural and economic centrality of pornography.
In conclusion, this film comprises a critical reworking of the formal and ideological conventions of the costume drama, allowing us to observe the operation of these generic conventions, as well as the semantic function of costume within the film image, and inviting us to understand this cinematic cultural history as an account of seductive and illusory surfaces – an unreliable historical account of unreliable characters engaged in the business of spectacle.
In writing about costume drama, questions of surface have often been explored as questions of authenticity and inauthenticity, questions that in turn are often linked to the ‘feminine’ qualities and supposed female audiences of these dramas. As Stella Bruzzi writes, ‘There are two principal charges levelled at costume films: that they lack authenticity and that they are frivolous’ (Ibid.). However, what unfolds from these gendered judgements, and feminist counter-claims around the in/authenticity of costume film, is a series of questions about the status of cinema itself as a medium concerned with temporality, history as performance, and the unstable boundaries of genre.
Preoccupied with pushing at the boundaries of genre, Winterbottom playfully places the frivolous culture of burlesque shows, strip clubs, trashy West End musicals and tacky pornographic magazines in the frame of the costume drama, and in doing so produces a quietly transgressive reworking of the genre itself.
Bennett, Bruce (2014). The Cinema of Michael Winterbottom: Borders, Intimacy, Terror. New York: Columbia University Press.
Bruzzi, Stella (1997). Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies. London and New York: Routledge
Collie, Stephanie (2013). ‘The Look of Love: Q and A with Costume Designer Stephanie Collie’. Clothes on Film. 29 August 2013. Available from: http://clothesonfilm.com/the-look-of-love-qa-with-costume-designer-stephanie-collie/33035/
Pidduck, Julianne (2004). Contemporary Costume Film: Space, Place and the Past. London: BFI