That’s Sex!

A documentary portrait of Helmut Newton.

Helmut Newton

The Helmut in Helmut by June (Cinemax, Monday at 7 p.m. ET) is the late Helmut Newton, a photographer who made his name taking pictures of performers, politicians, society figures, and—infamously—women wearing some combination of very expensive clothing and nothing at all. June is his widow, a photographer herself under the name Alice Springs. Shot in the early ‘90s, first assembled in 1994, now receiving its U.S. premiere three years after Helmut’s death at age 83, June Newton’s hourlong documentary is several things: an oblique memoir, a casual reflection on a master at work, a sliver-thin portrait of a 54-year marriage in progress, and a uniquely intimate piece of criticism. Also, considering the film’s many glimpses of Helmut lounging around fine hotels in the morning or after his daily siesta, the film doubles as a lesson in how to wear high-end bathrobes with tremendous style.

“Photography was always his mistress,” June says in a newly taped prologue, “and I was his wife.” Let’s say it was an open marriage, and that when this film catches the husband fooling around, it grooves to the notion of a boy at play. Typically, the figures caught in Newton’s viewfinder glow with the force of myth. We find him coaxing a dashingly satanic glare from Luciano Pavarotti and capturing Gianni Versace in a satyr’s repose. The dames constitute a gallery of 50-foot women, aristocratic Amazons and, as Anthony Lane once wrote, “glaciers with breasts”; they’re not so much statuesque as monumental.

Sigourney Weaver is a favorite Newton subject, possibly an ideal one. At various points, he constructed the actress as a triumphant goddess of destruction, a sharpie in the drag of a three-piece suit, and a defiant prairie wife defending her homestead with a raised cigarette, a wet blouse, and an indomitable jaw. In Helmut by June, she shows up at a shoot in her Ripley buzz cut and a metallic body suit amounting to a second skin. Helmut puts her on a pedestal, against a wall, with her arms stretching out forever. June, meanwhile, trains her camera on Weaver’s middle, catching the changes in the light off her stomach as she gently breathes. The shot, in its hypnotic languor and plain kink poetry, catches Helmut’s point of view with arresting simplicity—and yet it’s also more rich and complicated than the man’s own assertion that he prefers his females  androgynous.   

One of the virtues of the film is that June simply lets Helmut’s nonstatements and his anti-illuminating assertions float around, giving them no more credit than they’re due, arguing against them when he’s plainly full of it. She maintains a long-term spouse’s tolerance for gentle foolishness. How, after all, can you respond to a fantasist who claims that his work documents “the harshness of everyday life amongst the rich”? As June does: silently presenting Helmut’s slick visions for contrast (say, the photo of a dyed-blonde Leda beneath a breathing swan). How could you counter his boast that his masterly instructions to a model made the difference between a mundane picture and a majestic one, except to say, as June does, “she blinked, that’s all”? “How can you say such a thing?” responds Helmut, mock-offended. “You are belittling me again. It is my direction that has made her mysterious and wonderful.”

It is, nonetheless, a hoot to absorb Helmut’s orders to his subjects. He hunches into his viewfinder as if trying to dive inside it, and he issues directions like a monomaniacal robot. When taking straight portraits, he simply prods his subjects. (To director Billy Wilder: “Play at being Billy!”) When shooting fashion spreads and art photos, he’s direct, sometimes comically precise, sometimes hilariously abstract, always adjusting the scene before him to match the tableau in his mind’s eye. “Chin down a bit.” “The feet should be more elegant.” “Bring up that heel, sweetheart. That’s it! That’s sex!” “A little bit more violent.” “Throw your chest out. The more chest I get, the better it will be for everybody.” “Beautiful—like a panther.” “Be a Venus.”

The chief feat of Helmut by June is to offer a range of hints about how Newton transforms women into goddesses. Its most striking sequence finds him orchestrating a Vogue shoot of Cindy Crawford descending a staircase. June shows us the model striding in real time and then replays it, bringing down the speed so that we can see one frame flowing into the next and watch minute changes in motion and muscle tension and the French daylight. The effect is at once dreamy and diagrammatic, as if the wife, in a little miracle of photography, has dropped us into the husband’s eye.