Factory Girl follows the rise and fall of Edie Sedgwick (played by Sienna Miller), who became a sort of honorary socialite in the famous Factory of Andy Warhol. Early in the film, an encounter with Warhol (Guy Pearce) generates an invitation to Edie to participate in his films. “Just be yourself,” he advises. She asks, “Which one?” That’s an overstatement. Edie suffers not a surplus but a deficit of self; she has physical beauty, a knack for the world of glamour, and a craven desire to please. To her credit, Miller manages to invest the character of Edie with a vulnerability that renders her pathetic life ultimately sympathetic. But the problem with the film is that the entire project has too much the predictable feel of a VH1 Behind the Music episode.
The film is shot in a series of flashbacks with voiceover commentary from an older Edie in (where else?) rehab. Not that much older of course, as she died at the age of 28 from (what else?) a drug overdose.
Guy Pearce is quite good as Warhol, whom he plays as an affected, droll, and rather hollow narcissist. The problem is that the character does not give Pearce much to work with. Famous for his pop art that held a mirror up to our consumer and celebrity culture, Warhol himself is a dispassionate consumer of others. But there is no depth to the man, not even a hidden dark side. He does embody a kind of detached malice, evident in the scene toward the end of the film when he takes advantage of Edie’s desperation to film her, without her knowing about the part in advance, in a pornographic scene of sexual violence, amounting to a staged rape.
The occasion for her falling out with Warhol is her flirtation (and more) with a young folk singer. In the film that singer goes by the name of Danny Quinn, but there is more than a hint that he is really Bob Dylan, who reportedly wrote “Just Like a Woman” with Edie in mind. Supposedly, Dylan’s name was not used in the film because of the threat of a lawsuit. That may have been for the better, since Hayden Christensen’s performance as Quinn is so flat as to render even Dylan forgettable.
Amid all his talk about fame and changing the world, Warhol has little energy for vigorous rebellion and no big ideas about anything of significance. When he and Edie are asked at one point about their views on Vietnam, he stares blankly and she deadpans, “We prefer I Dream of Jeannie.” Warhol is fond of Catholic statues and continues to go to confession, where he drones on about his jealousy over someone else being punched at a party by Norma Mailer. “I can’t help but wonder when will Norman Mailer punch me?”
For the gorgeous and frivolous Edie, who was abused by her father as a child, the opportunity Warhol offers to be part of “the scene” is simply irresistible. And for a time she is the scene, adored by photographers and the press. She alternates between looking like a stand-in from a Laugh-In skit and playing the central character in an imagined prequel to Requiem for a Dream — headed in a downward spiral of drug addiction and sexual degradation.
The film does not flinch from showing the repulsive depths to which Edie’s life sinks. These scenes are moving, even gut wrenching. But, in the telling of Edie’s story, as in the recreation of the ’60s art scene, the film fails to provide sufficient context for the story to rise above a passing trifle. Factory Girl is all visual montage — colorful glitter mixed with episodic surface insights. In that respect, it is perhaps a fitting tribute to Warhol’s art.
– Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.