Fashion

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful review – not-so fawning fashion doc


The intelligence and even-handedness of this documentary about the provocative fashion photographer Helmut Newton makes a change from the fawning tone you get in a lot of fashion films. It’s a flattering “authorised” portrait, featuring interviews with famous Newton muses Charlotte Rampling, Grace Jones and Claudia Schiffer. But director Gero von Boehm deserves points for not ignoring the “porno chic” controversy surrounding his more extreme fetishistic images of naked women. There’s a brilliant clip of Newton appearing as a guest on French TV alongside Susan Sontag, who accuses him to his face of being a misogynist.

The film benefits from terrific behind-the-scenes footage of Newton on the set of his shoots. “Don’t look poverty stricken. Look incredible!” he instructs a model. Newton himself looks as if he’s just stepped off a yacht in the French Riviera – a mischief-making youthful octogenarian, trim and tanned. He was born in Germany in 1920 into a Jewish family and fled the Nazis in 1938. In Australia, he met his wife, June, and in Paris made his name photographing a particular type of women – amazonians who projected sex and glamour. Men he had little time for; they were accessories – like a hat or a pair of shoes. Newton died in 2004 in a car accident in Los Angeles.

In an archive interview, Newton says that his photographs put women in a position of power – his model is always dominant, looking down at the man looking at her. That’s not always true. Certainly not in his infamous shot of a woman on all fours, naked but for a horse saddle on her back. Some of the most interesting commentary here comes from Isabella Rossellini, who thinks that Newton’s photographs exposed how some men feel – how attraction to a woman can make them feel resentful and angry. Another former model believes he held a mirror up to misogyny in society. You might prefer Sontag’s simpler take. A fascinating film.

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