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Factory Girl

Run, Edie, Run

By the mid-60s, Andy Warhol had firmly established himself as the front man for the "Pop Art" movement in the United States. Commercially successful as a painter and illustrator, Warhol turned to making avant-garde films in the “Factory”, a performance and production space in midtown Manhattan where Warhol collaborated with other artists, drag queens, and assorted hangers on, to make experimental films (when they weren’t partying or helping to mass produce silkscreens and lithographs). In January of 1965, Warhol met an ingénue new to Manhattan, Edie Sedgwick, at a party. Under Warhol’s direction, Edie became a celebrity in Manhattan’s alternative circles and an actress in several of Warhol’s films. Almost forty years later, George Hickenlooper (The Big Brass Ring, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse) makes Sedgwick the “star” of his latest film, Factory Girl.

Sedgwick (Sienna Miller), young, beautiful, and wealthy (but not untroubled, thanks to multiple institutionalizations), drops out of Radcliffe College and moves to Manhattan to seek fame and recognition as an artist. Sedgwick's close friend and confidante Chuck Wein (Jimmy Fallon) introduces her to Andy Warhol (Guy Pearce). Warhol becomes instantly infatuated with Edie's frail beauty and charisma and invites her to collaborate with him on his next film. Thanks to family money, Edie has more than enough to live on, making it easy for her to join Warhol’s entourage. Parties, art openings, and other social events follow. Edie gets modeling work from Diana Vreeland (Illeana Douglas), Vogue’s editor-in-chief, who declares Edie the latest “It” girl.

Edie gets a shock when she discovers that she’s squandered her trust fund on her party girl ways (e.g., shopping, eating at the finest establishments in Manhattan, and a burgeoning drug problem). Edie’s disapproving father, Fuzzy (James Naughton), isn’t much help. Likewise with Warhol, who refuses to pay her for appearing in his films. Modeling gigs also don’t do much for Edie’s financial solvency. Edie also meets a folk-rock musician, Billy Quinn (Hayden Christensen), who offers her a more idealistic alternative to Warhol’s cynical, potentially exploitative patronage. Warhol sees Edie’s romantic relationship with Billy as a betrayal of their friendship. Openly hostile toward one another, Warhol and Quinn get into a (figurative) pissing match and force a distraught Edie to take sides.

Factory Girl covers ground familiar to anyone who’s seen a dramatized (read: fictionalized) biography: Edie’s early success as part of Warhol’s entourage is inevitably followed her slow decline into drug abuse and self-destruction. To make Factory Girl palatable to moviegoers, there had to be something, anything, to make Edie a likable, sympathetic character for audiences to connect to. Edie is compelling not because of any artistic or literary talent she might have had, but because of her relationship with the distant, manipulative Warhol and the politically progressive, if no less egocentric, Quinn (a thinly disguised composite based on singer/songwriter Bob Dylan).

With Sedgwick relentlessly depicted as a self-destructive narcissist driven by her desire for recognition (and, of course, undermined by her family history), a successful feature-length bio about her is a daunting proposition for even a talented filmmaker to pull off. It’s one that director Hickenlooper, for all his technical and storytelling virtuosity on display here (e.g., changing film stocks, rough camera work, visual composition, the direct-to-camera interview that opens and closes the film, and voice-over narration), doesn’t quite achieve. In fact, all that virtuosity suggests that Hickenlooper was well aware of Factory Girl’s story and character problems and did what he could to hide them.

On the plus side, the movie is Sienna Miller’s chance to shine and she does. Factory Girl is Miller’s film from the first monochromatic frame (a disheveled Sedgwick running away from someone or something) to the last shot (a placid Sedgwick walking off camera). Miller convincingly conveys Edie's naïveté, vulnerability, and fragility. Her fine performance makes Sedgwick's inevitable self-immolation far more poignant than otherwise would have been. Ultimately, Sedgwick's life is tragic for its brevity, but Factory Girl doesn’t come close to suggesting that Sedgwick's untimely death robbed the world of a talented artist or performer. Contrary to the affirmative testimonials by Edie’s real-life counterparts shown over the end credits, it’s hard to believe that Edie’s untimely death had a major impact on her immediate family and friends and, sad to say, a minor, albeit a romanticized, one for everyone else.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars