The more docs I watch about the supposedly glamorous sex drugs and rock'n'roll 60s and 70s the more dark and toxic I realise it actually was. CATCHING FIRE: THE STORY OF ANITA PALLENBERG does nothing to over-turn that opinion, but impresses with its crisp well-organised construction, its access to key players, and its superb use of Pallenberg's unpublished memoirs and previously unseen home video footage. All of these give the film an intimacy and understanding of what it must have been like to be at the centre of the Rolling Stones whirlwind.
Directors Svetlana Zill and Alexis Bloom try hard to make the case that Italian-born German model and actress Anita Pallenerg was worthy of notice in her own right. They speak to her charisma, her intelligence, her style, and the fact that she might have been a great actress. Kate Moss speaks of her as the original Boho Rock Chick. I was not convinced. Sure, with her European upbringing and language skills, Anita was streets ahead of the Rolling Stones in style and confidence, and contributed to THEIR success, but what was actually hers? Do we really get a feel for her acting talent from a cameo in BARBARELLA or her role in PERFORMANCE? If nothing else those roles show how exploitative that era was. Roger Vadim notoriously abused his wife Jane Fonda in their relationship and the latter film was a vehicle for Mick Jagger who Anita inevitably slept with. And in the most telling moment of all, the radical revolutionary Stones were actually good old fashioned patriarchal misogynists - or at least Keith Richards was - making Anita give up her acting when they got together. So, from my perspective, while the film wants us to think of Anita as this strong, smart, inspirational woman, she actually comes across as yet another victim of men who wanted her, and her addictions.
The film opens with a young Anita falling into the orbit of the neo-famous Stones. She starts dating Brian Jones, but his addiction spins out of control and she ends up as physically abused carer, falling into addiction herself to cope. Did we know he was physically abusive before this doc? Listening to Scarlett Johansson's emotionally affecting reading of Anita's unpublished memoirs gives us a hitherto unknown insight into how horrific that time was for Anita. It broke my heart. We now know that she didn't so much jump from Brian to Keith Richards out of love, or lust, but as a means of self-protection.
And so we come to the period when the Stones were on the run, threatened with prosecution for drug use. They start recording Exile on Main Street in a French mansion that attracts free-loaders and junkies. Keith and Anita are using heavily despite the fact that they now have a young son, Marlon. By the time they get to Switzerland, they also have a daughter, Angela, and in the words of a neighbour, interviewed here, Marlon though a toddler, is basically the man of the house. At this level of neglect, it becomes abuse, and it speaks volumes to the character of Marlon and Angela that they speak of their mother with compassion and understanding. It's also telling they refer to her as "Anita" rather than "mum".
The most heartbreaking moment of the film is when Keith and Anita's third child, Tara, dies of what we would now understand to be SIDS. She questions if she could have done more if sober. He goes on stage that night, weirdly numb, but in his explanation to stop him shooting himself. They seem to love their kids, but they simply are too high to be parents.
Eventually they split, she gets sober, and has a second life away from the shadow of the Stones, taking a degree, modelling, acting again. She seems happy. In a sense it becomes a story of survival and reinvention - maybe discovering who she really was all along. But one really thinks about those wasted years of addiction and oppression, of not working as an actor because Keith didn't let her, of basically running a flophouse for junkies in France. You can only describe it as tragic.
CATCHING FIRE: THE STORY OF ANITA PALLENBERG has a running time of 110 minutes. It played Cannes 2023 and will play the BFI London Film Festival.