“My lifeline is broken,” says Edie Sedgwick (Sienna Miller), remembering a youthful encounter with a concerned palm reader. “I know I won’t live past 30.” One of several portentous moments in George Hickenlooper’s Factory Girl, Edie’s memory doesn’t so much set up her death by drug overdose in 1971 as it demonstrates an ongoing ooh-ooh narrative mode. Part breathless, part exhausted, the movie offers up a gossipy interpretation of Sedgwick’s life and death. Unfortunately, it misses what might have been most compelling about that life and its own format, slipping in and out of fact and fiction, emulating documentary to challenge the very idea of documentary.
For a minute, it looks like Factory Girl is onto something. Given the current Nancy-Grace-Larry-King-Rita-Cosby frenzy surrounding Anna Nicole Smith, the movie has an unearned sort of salience. It’s not just that Sedgwick’s fast, sad life resembles Smith’s or even that the media attention for both was often overwhelming, salacious, and cruel. It’s more that Sedgwick and Smith were and remain symptomatic—of broader anxieties concerning celebrity, morality, and authenticity, of efforts to cast differences between fact and fiction in ethical, ideological terms. Tediously, after observing Sedgwick’s relationship to this cluster of anxieties, the film doesn’t find much else to say.
And it has repeated chances to say something smart. While its documentary look is something of a shorthand for “period,” it also offers a potential challenge to the genre’s presumed representation of “reality.” Warhol and Sedgwick are ideal foci for the problem, as neither offered much in the way of truth for the cameras incessantly pointed at them. They posed, they puffed, they made fun of the process while seeming to believe it, the circular logics of their relationship to stardom equally clichéd and revelatory.
But the movie leans on the tragedy of their stories, underling the loss of self that attended such antics, as well as the dysfunctional families that produced such antics whores. It loses sight of the fact that in the Factory’s rather more profound formulation, there is no definitive self to be lost. As Warhol says at the film’s start, “The fascination I experienced was probably very close to a certain kind of love.” This seems right, that his feelings for Edie were feelings about himself, and articulates the ways that celebrity works more broadly: it is about distance rather than intimacy, illusion instead of understanding.
Warhol here is all about self-invention, creating art from everydayness (or at least pointing out its preexistence), imagining himself into significance. He treats Edie as such an object—beautiful and vivacious, she’s willing to be reframed and duplicated, Warhol’s most appreciative audience and most willing object. Until, of course, the former art school student and model becomes famous as “Warhol’s muse,” whereupon she’s overcome by her own demons (her father’s incestuous abuses, her gay brother’s suicide, her mother’s ignorance) as these manifest in her not-so-recreational drug use.
Sienna Miller and Guy Pearce star as Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol
At times, the film looks quite self-aware, juggling its artifice with its fascinations, its pretend reality with its abject tabloidism. When, during one of their bonding moments, Warhol and Edie visit his mother (Beth Grant), a brief look into her cupboard reveals stacks of Campbell’s tomato soup cans, suggesting a more or less straight line from childhood observation to adult composition. It’s not a bad joke about the film’s own process, false psychologizing and rueful commentary (Edie appears as her older, near-death incarnation, speaking to an off-screen therapist during her institutionalization in Santa Barbara. It’s cheap, making you into this therapist, as if you know better. To its credit, the moment hints that listening to Edie is consuming her, again and again, momentarily deconstructing the cultural obsession with such patently false “understanding.”
Mostly, though, the movie remains in first gear, noting such processes even as it succumbs to them. Its most facile version of such “understanding” is to oppose Edie’s relationship with Warhol her relationship with the Musician, played by Hayden Christiansen and modeled on Dylan (who tried to sue for defamation of character and delayed the film’s opening). Warhol is all about surfaces, ensconced in the Factory, making movies and inventing scenarios, offering actors and artists space to find themselves and reflect him. Like and unlike Edie, Warhol embraces the dishonesty as a route to truth; it’s a familiar delusion, hardly evil in itself. But as Edie collapses into herself (her mascara running, her cigarettes always lit), Warhol watches, hand on hip, ostensibly incapable of empathy or insight.
While it’s a typical move to make Warhol the villain of Sedgwick’s tragedy, Factory Girl takes it another step by setting him against the Musician. Her romance with the Musician is tediously reductive: he’s earnest and rejects drugs, while Warhol swirls around in decadence. Sedgwick rides the back of the Musician’s motorcycle, her head leaned back in sunshine, her smile bright and apparently drugless. They share passionate, soft-filtered sex in a bed, she appreciates his music (or so it seems, as you never hear him perform). When Warhol turns jealous, she tries to bring her separate realms together, inviting the Musician to the Factory to “make a movie.” Warhol directs him to “be himself.” The Musician stands awkwardly in front of the camera, daring Warhol: “You smoke man? Or are you just into that faggy speed stuff?” Sigh.
The session is a bust. “Your friend is a bloodsucker,” the Musician tells Edie, “You’re his prop. You should fucking hate him. You’re so scared, babe.” More to the point, but surely impossible due to legal concerns, he might have said, “It ain’t me, babe.” The scene makes painfully clear the silly stakes here: Edie can choose life or death, the Musician or Warhol, even though they’re similarly constructed, self-loving, and possessive. Though the movie makes clear enough that Warhol’s gift is vision—he sees and exploits the shifting relationship between truth and fiction—it lacks exactly that.