(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)
In 1980, German-Australian photographer, Helmut Newton, partnered with Japanese fashion brand Jun Ropé to direct Cold Eye. The commercial would become part of a small canon of Jun Ropé advertisements that saw the brand collaborating with renowned fashion photographers such as Richard Avedon and Serge Lutens, featuring models such as Lauren Hutton, Jean Shrimpton, Anjelica Huston, and Veruschka.
Cold Eye coincided with Newton’s studio-bound photography project Big Nudes, a series of black and white photos taken between 1979 and 1981. Big Nudes reintroduced Newton’s signature aestheticism into the commercial space, while also marking a distinct stylistic change. Everything Newton was known for – ambiguous insert shots, lavishly dressed androgynous models, erotically charged subtext – was largely absent in Big Nudes, replaced by models shot straight on against monochromatic backdrops, an emphasis on form and shape taking precedent over elaborate staging.
Despite the stark minimalism of Big Nudes, Newton’s directorial work on Cold Eye shows he hadn’t lost his flair for what put him on the map in the first place: hyperreality visuals from a sadomasochistic fever dream, shot in luxurious locales that fetishize glamour and jet-set hedonism. In many ways, Cold Eye functions as the “greatest hits” of Newton’s polished style; a bite-sized distillation of his precocious photographical authorship coming to life with movement and sound.
The minute-long commercial shows the aristocratic patrons of some unknown, ornate hotel lobby behaving with stunning artifice. A woman at the bar looks away from the tuxedoed “hooray-henry” next to her, giving furtive eyes to the camera as she blows cigarette smoke into the lens. In the lounge area, a group of stoic socialites look on as a woman removes chains from her ankles, revealing ripped sheered tights. Everything is icy and haunted, set to “The Very Thought Of You” by Al Bowlly. While Cold Eye is undeniably fashionable, it has a sinister undercurrent, not so much seen as felt. Something evil is happening here, and we’re just getting a peek at it through the keyhole, on the other side of a swanky nightmare. The unsettling feeling that Cold Eye leaves the viewer with is something most fashion brands would likely steer clear of nowadays. It goes to show how daring and provocative Jun Ropé was at the time, as well as how refined and identifiable Newton’s style had become by 1980.
It’s also of note that Cold Eye was released the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, as both share obvious parallels: the eerie hotel setting, the lethargic camera movements, the ghostly 1920s big band era music. It would come as no surprise if the Torrance family of The Shining popped up amongst the hotel lobby crowd in Cold Eye, and vice versa. Kubrick, a photographer turned director himself, would go on to expound upon Newton-esque aesthetics in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), leading one to wonder how much – given the timeline – Newton’s vision in Cold Eye played into Kubrick’s subsequent works.
Although cemented by history as a fashion photographer, Cold Eye offers a rare glimpse into an alternative reality where Newton transitions from photographer to director, producing orphic films that straddle the line between the worlds of Alain Resnais and Peter Greenaway. Unfortunately, it’s a reality we’ll never come to know. But what we do have is Cold Eye, a universe unto itself despite its brief runtime. | e hehr
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