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Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenburg

"I've been called a witch, a slut, and a murderer. Maybe people confuse me with the characters I play in films ... like I'm an empty vessel onto which they project their fantasies and their shortcomings, but I don't need to settle scores. I'm reclaiming my soul. I write as a woman searching for another adventure." 

Thus begins Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill’s documentary “Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg.” Scarlett Johansson provided the voice-over, reading from an unpublished memoir written by model-actress-artist-icon Anita Pallenberg. Found by her children after her death in 2017, the words contained "will anger the lawyers,” she wrote. If only the rest of the documentary lived up to the vibrant voice Pallenberg established for herself. 

Like any number of recent bio-docs, the filmmakers use archival footage, film clips, photographs, and interviews with those who knew her, including director Volker Schlöndorff, her children Marlon and Angela, and even Keith Richards himself, to craft a surface-level reassessment of Pallenberg’s life. An audio clip from similarly sidelined icon Marianne Faithful states, "Neither of us wanted to be with them because we wanted their power. We had our own power." Yet, the documentary mostly anchors Pallenberg’s life around her time with The Rolling Stones.

A quick blast to the past sets up Pallenberg’s youth as a self-described “wild child” who grew up with conservative Italian-German parents who lost everything during WWII. This prelude tells us how deeply her childhood during the war affected her behavior. Still, this thread is abandoned later in the doc, aside from one assertion that she and Richards understood each other because they were both children during the war. 

The rest of the documentary follows her whirlwind life after coming to America in 1963 and befriending the downtown art scene, which included Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Allen Ginsberg. “I loved the feeling of culture exploding,” she says about her time in New York City. We get a laundry list of miscellaneous jobs she performed without much exploration of exactly what she hoped to express as an artist. 

Instead, we get a very detailed re-telling of how she met the Rolling Stones and fell in love with Brian Jones, whom she described as her "doppelganger.” This was a mutually destructive, co-dependent relationship filled with drugs (and eventually violence) from Jones. This section of her life is illustrated with heaps of archival material that adds a cool sheen to everything, smoothing over its lack of any actual substance. 

One of the few times we learn anything about Pallenberg as an artist comes from director Schlöndorff’s stories of making “Degree of Murder” with her. This then transitions into a wonderful discussion of her larger-than-life talent as “The Great Tyrant” in the camp classic “Barbarella.” Of all the talking heads, Schlöndorff appears to be the only one interested in who Pallenberg was as an artist and keeping that part of her legacy alive. 

Of course, this is also the time in her life when her relationship with Jones imploded; she found solace with Richards, who would be her partner for the next decade, and also a brief fling with Mick Jagger while they made Nicolas Roeg’s "Performance" together. And yes, it is interesting that both "Gimme Shelter" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" were written about her. Still, the doc would have been stronger if it interrogated how she felt about what she inspired rather than dwelling on the salaciousness of it all. 

Again, it proves just how deeply rooted this film is in telling Pallenberg's story by who she was in relation to all these men. Despite claiming otherwise in its marketing, this doc still wants to uphold her as the rock n’ roll goddess of the headlines rather than as a person on her own terms. Because we only get curated sections of her unpublished memories, which are few and far between, it remains unclear how much of her memoir explores her wants, desires, and inner thoughts. Did she write about her children? Did she write about her artistic drive? 

Worst of all, the most notorious stories from this period of her life—her affair with Jagger, fleeing with Richards and their children to Switzerland to avoid jail time for their illegal drug use, the death of their third child, the “Deer Hunter” inspired death of Scott Cantrell—are all told from an outsider's perspective. We never really get to know how these incidents affected Pallenberg. We only glimpse her inner life in relation to her darkest moment. On trying to kick her heroin addiction, Pallenberg wrote that she "felt like some nasty person who caused death and destruction around her." Up to this point, that’s all the doc has allowed her story to be.

She and Richards split for good in 1979, and Pallenberg was finally able to get sober. Yet, although the film is titled "The Story of Anita Pallenberg," it loses all interest in Pallenberg's life once her story parallels that of the Stones. Even with a two-hour runtime, the documentary reduces the last forty years of her life, in which she began modeling again and returned to film acting, among other artistic pursuits, to a cursory montage and some kind words from Kate Moss. Why is this part of her life not worth true inclusion? Why do Bloom and Zill not deem it integral to her story?

In a final piece of voiceover, Pallenberg says, "Writing this [memoir] has helped me emerge in my own eyes." Too bad, then, that her story has been filtered through eyes that still only see her as a mess or a muse, not the complex, imperfect artist, mother, and woman she really was. 

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg movie poster

Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg (2024)

112 minutes

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