The test of a good mind, it is said, is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously. The question raised by The Notorious Bettie Page is whether that aperçu also applies to hearts. For Page, who in real life gained a dubious fame by posing for risibly risqué pictures back in the 1950s, is portrayed as both a sweet-souled religious fundamentalist and a genial exhibitionist. She seems to feel that the good Lord gave her an attractive body for the excellent reason that it pleasured men to ogle it in various states of undress.
Whether he really meant for it to be exhibited in black underwear and painfully high boots, or tied up in bondage poses, is a question that doesn't seem to bother Page, armored as she is in innocence and good nature. It is, though, a question that bothers others, including Senator Estes Kefauver and his crime committee.
That's pretty much what Mary Harron's cool, sly movie has for a conflict. And since Page, though under subpoena, never gets to tell her side of the story to Kefauver, not a lot comes of it. Mostly the film encourages us to giggle along with Page as she adopts more and more comically outrageous costumes and poses.
There are times when we wish for some firmer conclusion about the sources of Page's chipper amorality. On the other hand, Gretchen Mol is so game and adorable as Page, so at ease with her own nakedness--not to mention so blithe in her disregard for everyone else's prudishness--that by the end of the film we just take Page to heart.
Page is still alive, and there are many books of her photographs available in stores. They have become icons of America's secret life of a half-century ago. This cheeky movie does not impose heavy-duty meaning on Page's life and times. It just lets us draw our own ambiguous conclusions about what she did. It is the better, the more enticing, for so doing.