New Portrait of Infamous Fashion Photographer Helmut Newton Attempts to Dress him Down.
DIRECTED BY GERO VON BOEHM/2020
DVD STREET DATE: SEPTEMBER 29, 2020/KINO LORBER
In cruder terms, comedian J.B. Smoove explained they difference between “nude” and “nekkid”. Basically, there’s an elegance to “nude”; a classic painting or an artistic performance. “Nekkid” is the unclothed opposite; raw and base. Though a comedy bit (as delivered on an episode of the podcast Inside Conan, a show devoted to going behind-the-scenes of the Conan TV show), there’s no mistaking the universal validity in the observation. That is, except when it comes to the work of the late photographer Helmut Newton.
Known for his stylized, unearthly depictions of glamazons in the buff, Newton’s models (when unclothed, which they often are) are somehow both “nude” and “nekkid”. The new documentary Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful displays its fair share of his famously uncompromising photographs. In doing so, filmmaker Gero von Boehm tries to get at what made Newton’s images so seductive in their alien-ness; so sexy in their austerity. The attempt is two-thirds successful. Despite the allure of the subject matter (or more accurately, the allure of the work of the subject matter), The Bad and the Beautiful can’t at times help but fall into the kind of by-the-numbers documentary rut that so many do.
Von Boehm, though, does cut a mean edit, resulting in a very watchable piece even when the dots might not necessarily be connecting. There’s a fine flow to The Bad and the Beautiful as it mixes much vintage footage of Newton’s shoots and even clips from a previous documentary with his newly filmed interviews.
And an impressive array it is, a who’s who of his former subjects, including Catherine Deneuve, Grace Jones, Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Claudia Schiffer, Hanna Schygulla, and most prominently credited, the photographer’s widow June Newton (who is only heard but not seen in her contemporary interviews). These people all have the utmost respect for Newton, even as they themselves continue to sort out his impishness, his perfectionism, and fetishistic mind. To the models as presented here, he was perverse but not a pervert; an artist who despised the term “art”.
Kino Lorber’s new DVD edition of Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful is a perfectly utilitarian effort. The film looks just fine, presenting Newton’s trademark austere images (most of which are otherworldly black and white, and originated via Vogue magazine) in as decent of representations as standard definition video can offer. Don’t look for any bonus features, though there is a list of viewable trailers for this film and others that are currently available.
Though “nude” and “nekkid” are both inherently confrontational, they typically arrive at it differently. Newton, without being grossly pornographic, walked both lines at once. He wove them, rendering images that exuded both his momentary version of female human-body idealism (it shifted) and an immaterial othering.
Try as it does, The Bad and the Beautiful can never fully dress down Helmut Newton. Thankfully, doing so doesn’t seem to be the point. Coming away, our knowledge of him is far from either carnal or intimate. But he is thoroughly humanized through von Boehm’s endeavor, and sixteen years following his death, Newton, with his trademark blend of the nude and the nekkid, might just finally click with a broader audience.