A personal passion project of Steve Coogan’s, The Look of Love reunites him with director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, The Trip) to tell the tragicomic true story of Paul Raymond, the man who built a fortune on erotic theatre and clubs, owned half of Soho and became the richest man in the UK.
The character of Paul Raymond fits Coogan like a glove; he ticks all the boxes that drive him as a performer – he’s a vilified monster with a lesser known side that’s uncomfortably recognisable as universally human, and his line of business lands him in all manner of surreal and darkly humourous situations. Winterbottom and Coogan are a dream team, and this was an obvious project for them, the director playing to the actor’s strengths in areas such as improvisation and comedy.
We are introduced to Raymond in his latter years, looking back on the wild ride of his life in the light of a family tragedy that suddenly frames things differently, and for a moment Raymond is quiet, sober and reflective. The rest of the film is a whirlwind tour of his lavish lifestyle, dizzyingly presented through hyperkinetic editing and eye-popping colours, not to mention nudity in quantities that might have made Raymond himself blush.
Besides the classic song, the title refers to the performance of porn actresses as they’re required to appear to be enjoying what they are doing. It’s a subtle insight into the falseness behind the marketing of human flesh, that’s still going strong today. Raymond constantly ignores reminders of the importance of family and the damaging nature of his work, and it’s telling that in their research the filmmakers struggled to find anyone who was truly close to him.
As expected the supporting cast sometimes struggle to keep up with Coogan’s in depth and exploratory performance, particularly in the improvised scenes. Still strong though are Tamsin Egerton as Amber, one of Raymond’s mistress/muses, and Chris Addison as photographer Tony Power. British comics from Stephen Fry to David Walliams fill out most of the other supporting parts – perhaps comedians are the only ones happy to touch this kind of hot material.
The delivery of the moral is heavy handed but true, King Midas being a parallel so obvious there’s even a scene where Raymond himself ponders it. For a film that one hand warns of the dangers of hedonism, it takes a surprising amount of relish providing gratuitous titillation of it’s own; an uncomfortable ambiguity that Coogan and Winterbottom are typically happy to settle for, but also one suggestive that there may yet be answers to the questions posed, even if the filmmakers stop short of discovering them.