Any artist who visibly raises the hackles of Susan Sontag deserves a closer look, and Gero von Boehm’s “Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful” is eager to oblige. Yet this brisk documentary, steered by the fond recollections and admiring voices of famous beauties — Charlotte Rampling, Catherine Deneuve, Isabella Rossellini, Grace Jones — is as averse to analysis as its irrepressible subject.
Not that Newton, a photographer of uncommon wit and unabashed eroticism (he died in a car crash in 2004), would have appreciated being called an artist. (To him, “art” was a dirty word.) As a Jewish teenager living in Berlin under the Nazis, he was inspired by Leni Riefenstahl’s images of athletes and apprenticed to the theatrical photographer Madame Yva (who was later killed in a concentration camp).
These influences flourished in his often controversial fashion shoots for Vogue in the 1960s and beyond. An avowed lover of breasts, legs and attitude, he could turn stiletto heels and skintight skirts into weapons of empowerment, drawing the eye to the muscled flesh beneath. His statuesque nudes, positioned as unattainable Valkyries, were immune to the stares of the men who often crouched below them in the frame. Like those of the artist Robert Crumb, Newton’s compositions could waver between objectification and celebration, animosity and desire. Yet “Helmut Newton” alights only glancingly on their more troubling readings, leaving Sontag’s accusations of misogyny (here voiced on a French talk show) essentially unplumbed.
What dominates instead is a gossipy portrait of a charmingly naughty boy whose genius is perhaps best appreciated on a second viewing with the sound off and the eyes wide open.
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. Watch on Kino Marquee.