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The Pretty-Boy Syndrome

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Sure, Alfie still wants sex, but he wants sex the way Carrie does, the way either one of them wants shoes: as something to accumulate. Sex in this film isn’t about the brutal, unstoppable drive of Michael Caine or Mick Jagger, and it isn’t about connection, either: It’s about consumption. Dating is a kind of shopping for Alfie; a way to get himself the best and the most pretty things. Alfie has come here from London primarily because “the most beautiful women in the world reside in Manhattan,” among them Marisa Tomei, Nia Long, Susan Sarandon, Jane Krakowski, and Sienna Miller—who is Jude Law’s equal in pulchritude and, ever since they met on set, his girlfriend.

Alfie may be from out of town, but his approach to sex and sex appeal is native, millennial, Manhattan male, the kind with a medicine cabinet full of grooming products. This is a city in which the writer Rick Marin can title his memoir Cad, and then gush to InStyle magazine about his bride’s hand-painted, Italian-lace Cynthia Rowley dress. This redecorated cad is not a predator but a pretty, well-groomed, well-heeled trap: part lady-killer, part lady. Sex has never been so narcissistic.

As Alfie, Law is required to regard sex as a public thing, part of one’s urban currency. (Alfie even flirts with the old lady next door: He never turns it off.) But Law’s own sexuality is something he has cordoned off. His co-star Susan Sarandon says, “He’s one of the truly old-fashioned movie stars—a little inaccessible. There’s a kind of mystery about him, something you don’t quite get.” Unless you are actually sexually involved with him, he keeps his sexuality opaque.

I ask Law if falling in love on the job added any romance to his screen collaboration with Sienna Miller in Alfie. “Well, it’s work . . . you’re at work,” he says. He is not irritated; he is just resolutely, almost mulishly, unwilling to give an inch. “It’s like meeting at the post office if you work there. Doesn’t make sorting letters any more romantic.”

I point out that postal workers do not get naked together as part of their job. “Well, we barely got naked, really,” he says. “Let’s go for a walk.”

I have dog-biscuit face,” says Jude Law. He has just arrived, about an hour late, to the London studio of the legendary British photographer David Bailey to get his picture taken for the cover of this magazine. Law is sitting on a stool while his groomer applies man cream to his stubbly face and product to his perfectly mussed hair; he is wearing vintage tuxedo-striped pants with boots and a perfectly cut jacket over a gray sweater with a scene of a ghost in a graveyard knit on its front. On the wall, there is a shiny, abstract, black-and-white close-up of a vagina.

Law is animated as he talks to Bailey about his kids—Rafferty, 8, Iris, 4, and Rudy, 2—and how he is taking them to Venice tomorrow to visit Sienna Miller, who is there shooting a film with Lasse Hallström. Bailey says he’s leaving tomorrow, too, for Cuba, where he may get to shoot Castro. He warns Law he’s going to take a shot. Law immediately and automatically assumes the squint of someone serious and smoldering and busting with lust. Bailey snaps the shutter. Law relaxes and says, “But first we have my son’s football match in the morning.”

David Bailey was the model for the fast-driving, oft-shagging photographer played by David Hemmings in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. “If I were a woman,” he tells me, “I’d be a lesbian.” Bailey, who was once married to Catherine Deneuve, had a lot to do with the explosion of the aesthetic (and persona) we associate with swinging-sixties London: He shot iconic portraits of Michael Caine, Jean Shrimpton, Penelope Tree, Jane Birkin, and Mick Jagger—who was his roommate around the time Alfie was released. While we were waiting for Law to show up, I asked Bailey if he had been a fan of the first film. “Nah,” he says, with classic British class contempt. “Trashy people. Not interesting . . . ‘trailer park’ you’d call it in America.”

Alfie’s New York is marked by mobility: social and literal. He works as a limo driver and when he’s off duty he traverses the city not by foot or by subway, like a regular New Yorker, but by vintage Vespa. His is an enticing New York, but it is an outsider’s New York.

“It’s very much New York as seen through the eyes of Alfie,” says Law. “Setting the film in New York made him a bit of a fish out of water, a bit of an alien. He’s rootless, familyless . . . that modern sensibility that when you go somewhere new, you start again: You can project what you pretend is you.”

At its core, Alfie is a story not just about promiscuity but about independence as well . . . craving it, fighting for it, seeing how much of it you can get while still getting what you want from other people. “I’ve been obsessed with the movie since I was 12 years old,” says Elaine Pope. “I think I was in love with Alfie, but also as a commitment-phobic person I could relate to him.” This is something we understand in New York. That exciting, lonely sense of limitless possibility—for sex and material gain and adventure—is built into our pace and place.

Law is not particularly sympathetic to his character’s quest. “He’s not actually quite as up-front with women as in the Michael Caine version. Michael Caine’s Alfie was more brutal: Clean my socks, do the floor. This one is kind of more seductive. Here’s the question: If the dynamics are the same, what does that say about where we are now? People are still treating each other like shit—cheating, lying, deceiving—but now we’re doing it with a smile and lip gloss. Why are we pretending we’ve moved on? Because we’ve all been to therapy? Yes, the tone of the film in the original is colder, harsher, and this one has got more humor, perhaps, but the behavior is exactly the same—just as despicable. What I’m saying is, it’s very symbolic of the time we’ve come to now when we feel like everything is softened through beauty, through kindness . . . then the actions are excused. People are still fucking each other over, but what, we do it with a smile now?”


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