It's ironic that "The Notorious Bettie Page" is visually such a beautiful film. As it tells the story of it's titular pinup queen (Gretchen Mol), it mimics the various film stocks of Page's heyday, alternating its pristine black and white with grainy home movies, 16 mm film and the early color photography used by famed photographer Bunny Yeager, who did as much as anyone to make Page famous. But it's all just pretty packaging. The film is a careful overview of the circumstances which led Page, a Tennessee girl turned provocateur icon, from amateur modeling to bondage movies. But it doesn't do much to illuminate who she was or reveal the internal processes (or lack thereof) that led this seemingly demure person to pose for naughty pictures.
In a local note, the film credits as its source material the research in "The Real Bettie Page," a book by former Style reporter Richard Foster. Good for him. Too bad the filmmakers went with the more suggestive title. There's not much real about this Bettie. Mol isn't given the opportunity to play her as much as become her look-alike, sporting that signature blunt bang hairdo and taking her clothes off in a few scenes. (But what a few scenes!)
At least we get the major events. Page wanders from an abusive home to various photo shoots, each more risqué than the last, until she's drawn to the garishly lit cross of a Miami church. She emerges to preach the Gospel and defend her right to get naked, because Adam and Eve were, too. Does writer, director Mary Harron think this is a solid argument, or that Page was confused and naive? If she has an opinion she isn't letting it get out.
In style and subject "The Notorious Bettie Page" bears more than a passing similarity to Tim Burton's "Ed Wood." But while that movie made a point to explore the psychology of its subject, this one is mere surface-level treatment. It doesn't tell you much more about the real person than her old-fashioned nudie prints. ** S