Only Skin Deep
How do people cope with their perceived inadequacies in a world of ubiquitous cosmetic procedures? What drives someone to cut his or her flesh in an attempt to achieve beauty? Desire for Beauty posits numerous questions but often gets so caught up in its own style that it gets lost along the way.
Centering on the personal lives of four polish adults considering plastic surgery, Desire for Beauty follows these people on their journey and explores the various reasons for doing so. These reasons – as well as procedures – vary: one wants breast augmentation due to her own perceived inadequacies, one wants a procedure done do cope with a bad breakup, one wants is an actor terrified of aging, and a final one resorts to rhinoplasty to “fix” a large nose that peers bullied her for as a child. Interspersed between various interviews and voyeuristic looks into these people’s lives, director Miguel Gaudencio intersperses dramatic reenactments as well as artistic vignettes in an attempt to enhance the film’s overall message.
Desire for Beauty’s potentially biggest strength comes from its ambiguous, unspecific look at its subject matter. Experts and psychologists discuss issues of beauty and societal pressures that these subjects undergo, but the film never delves into clinical terminology like “body dysmorphia” or any actual pathology. Avoidance of that type of language prevents the audience from disassociating with the film’s content and saying “those poor people,” reminding us that we too can fall victim to these pressures. The film addresses day-to-day beauty obsession as a distinctly recent phenomenon felt by all members of western society, and effectively conveys the widespread nature such obsession.
The film posits some harsh questions about the relationship of beauty and identity. What becomes of our innate, authentic self if we can just change our exterior whenever we want? Once you have had the procedure done, do you think you will find true happiness? Desire for Beauty tries to present itself as impartial, so it never answers these questions, but at the same time it so obviously has an opinion on the matter that it would have been better served offering up solutions to these conundrums.
Whether intentional or not, there’s an underlying irony to the aesthetic of Desire for Beauty. The film often gets so caught up in its own avant-garde style that the overall product suffers as a result. Sure, it’s visually stunning to watch one of the film’s subjects run through the woods only to come face to face with the Venus de Milo, but it ultimately distracts from the real human drama of the proceedings. The most powerful moments in the film come from watching the authentic, emotional turmoil that each of the four subjects endures through the process. This proves equally true for the use of reenactments and scripted events – focusing on the subjects themselves and hearing their stories without a visual aid could ultimately have had a greater impact on the audience.
In trying out so many new and different ideas, the film also loses a great deal of its narrative focus. Although we meet the subjects early on, the film takes only a cursory look at their inner pain until around the final act – then the pathos gets ramped up. While it’s obviously important to meet these subjects and understand them as human beings, much of it often feels like filler in order to bring the film to a feature runtime. We also spend so much time with the subjects in private, that the film never really explores the societal pressures that they describe; we barely see advertisements, pop culture icons, or even images of real life bullying that convey the pressures they feel.
Overall, Desire for Beauty addresses a common, widespread issue in a way we have not necessarily seen before. It certainly poses questions that affect all of society as a whole, and that deserve answers. However, too much time and energy is ironically devoted to artistic direction, which reduces Desire for Beauty’s emotional punch.