The Reeler


February 4, 2007

Factory Girl

Miller's performance nearly redeems messy, misbegotten Sedgwick biopic

T he story of Factory Girl, director George Hickenlooper's embattled Edie Sedgwick biopic, is one a lot of us wish would stop being told; even Sedgwick steward Andy Warhol, the sultan of surface, may have bristled at the notion of winning infamy sight unseen. But Edie herself knew her tale demanded telling and, in fine Factory form, began shooting Ciao! Manhattan -- her own thinly veiled autobiography -- in 1967; that is to say, as soon as she saw the writing on the wall, but before entering full decline. Since then there have been numerous biographies, two of which were released this past fall in hardcover, and Warren Beatty bought the rights to her story in the early '80s, with visions of Molly Ringwald (!) in fake eyelashes and leggings frug-ing through his head. Now that Factory Girl has finally limped into theaters, pricked and prodded and tinkered with -- as its subject is shown to be, and to equal detriment -- by a host of men and as many hemorrhaging egos, is it possible to separate this film from its own mythology?

I can't say I didn't try. Sienna Miller does her utmost portraying Sedgwick, but the script and her director seem to have failed her. The few moments of genuine, stirring poignancy (or in the case of Guy Pearce's Andy Warhol, chilling pathology) manage to look incongruous when dropped into a film this facile. Miller's narration weaves in and out of a therapy session she is having in a Santa Barbara rehab clinic in 1970, a framing device that feels about as tacked on as it is. Her story begins in 1964, when she was a good Boston girl in a twin set who decided to head to New York because some guy named Chuck (Jimmy Fallon) asked her to; Chuck's plan is to pimp Edie around town, hoping his filthy rich, beautiful friend will gain them both access to the New York arts scene.

In short order, Edie catches the eye of Andy Warhol at a party, everything moves into slo-mo and he gets that Garth Algar/"Foxy Lady" look of paralytic adoration that will cross his face again when he spots the German chanteuse Nico onstage. Warhol has not spotted the love of his life -- indeed, he seems to have no concept of the emotion, and signs of life from the pale one are few -- but something much more complicated, possibly sinister. Pearce's transformation is a thing to behold, and the co-dependent relationship struck between these two supremely needy narcissists might have been more interesting had it been pursued with any insight. They are drawn to each other, but it's like Teflon on Teflon, generating a sort of anti-friction that threatens to send one of them (guess who) sailing out of the picture at any moment.

Edie's transformation -- the money sequence in any such movie, but in this case not without reason -- transpires somewhere offscreen, perhaps during one of the many jarring, grainy flashbacks within the flashback, to her childhood, all containing hints of incest, menace and the monied institutionalization of herself and her brothers. A stylistic free-for-all of varying film stocks, montages, split screens and stills illustrate Edie's rise to prominence in Warhol's group of fabulous misfits. Burning through her inheritance at warp speed, Edie stars in several of Andy's films, finances much Factory debauchery, becomes a fashion icon (Ileana Douglas has a pitch-perfect turn as Vogue editor Diana Vreeland), and believes Andy's disingenuous promise to help her become an artist in her own right. Edie seems to lose all agency without even noticing: her face is a canvas, her body more of a concept which others can conceive of as they please; when someone decides Edie should be injected with speed, injected with speed she is.

For all the bare boob-slinging and slinky tights, however, Edie is curiously desexualized until "The Musician" (wink wink) hits the scene. Hayden Christiansen is dealt a thankless hand, and while almost all of his lines (and their delivery) are cringe-worthy, he locks into the role during the terrific scene in which he meets the jealous Andy. While barely submitting to one of the artist's famously passive-aggressive "screen tests," Edie flutters in the background, terrified that she will lose one or both of the men in the tug of war for her attention. "The Musician" (wink wink) cannot abide Edie's loyalty to Andy, Andy is feeling the seven-month itch with his muse and Edie's descent into heroin ends with her apartment catching fire. Broke, alone and living in the Chelsea Hotel, Edie reaches a hideous low when a fresh wave of scum washes into her life -- the heroin set is a little more aggro in its exploitation, apparently -- and the sickening circle is complete. Though the film ends with the sanguine, brunette Edie waxing optimistic about the future, the titles indicate otherwise, as she died of a drug overdose in 1971. Over the credits are photos of the real Edie, along with talking head clips of her brother, George Plimpton and others telling stories about the girl they knew (these clips were integrated into the film in an earlier cut) and you probably learn more about who she actually was in those two minutes than the film could manage in 90.

Factory Girl's flickerings of a substantive meditation on the idea of Edie, however, give one brief hope, though ultimately they get buried in the battle between biopic conventions and the stagey dissection of her break with Warhol. The look of the film convincingly captures a specific moment in New York, and the costume design and make-up are flawless, but it is literally Miller's skin -- the magnetic, knowing surface-ness of her -- that comes closest to redeeming the film. Beauty is often incredibly confusing to both those who possess it and those who covet it, and the story of Edie and Andy is essentially a dilemma of beauty. The impulse of attraction can at once be an impulse to defile, disarm, neutralize; Sedgwick seemed only too willing a subject, and as Warhol, Pearce projects that painful hunger through a veil of amoral disaffection. "She's so beautiful," he whines at one point, "but she's determined to make herself ugly. Why would anyone want to do that?" The actress's headlong willingness to explore that facet of Edie's story, and of her tragedy, manages to resonate beyond the otherwise studio-bound world of the film.

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Comments (1)

The film should have focused more about her friends at Radcliffe and the glamourous life at the factory.As for Dylan, one of his early biographies states that he and Neuwirth met Edie together. Dylan had an affair with her and then when it was over, Neuwrth comforted her in an exploitive and degrading way.That is real and that's how the film should have been portrayed

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