Polish actress Agata Kulesza follows several young men and women as they prepare for cosmetic surgery procedures in addition to interviewing various experts in the field of psychology to examine the motivations and pressures that influence the decision to go under the knife.
The subject of cosmetic surgery has long been traditional fodder for sensationalist made-for-TV ‘true-life’ documentary (Plastic Disasters and Cosmetic Surgery Nightmares are two typical examples of the morbid fascination with botched surgeries), which is perhaps why Desire for Beauty, the first Polish feature documentary to broach the subject, marks itself as something different from the start, a film that blurs fiction and reality in pursuit of a psychological understanding of the people who go under the knife. It does not choose to outwardly moralise on the societal pressures to conform with an accepted standard of beauty but instead sensitively coaxes out the internal anxieties of its subjects and their reasons for pursuing a surgical solution.
In a traditional documentary format Desire for Beauty follows the journey of several people as they prepare to undergo cosmetic surgery procedures. Polish actress Agata Kulesza, recently seen in the Oscar-winning Ida (2013), here adopts the role of interviewer, inviting the subjects to articulate their motives, hopes and their reservations about their surgeries. Kulesza is a warm, approachable confidant and the film is at its most honest during these interviews, providing some real insight into why for these men and women surgery is a justifiable option. In addition, Kuleza interviews numerous experts to try and understand the pressures placed on these people and the wider psychological and philosophical issues surrounding the matter of cosmetic surgery. At these points the film is closest to passing judgement on the external societal influences that contribute to the feelings of inadequacy that may drive some to surgery; one commentator speculates that in the future we will be able to cosmetically modify our bodies as conveniently as withdrawing cash from an ATM. While this may seem like an exaggeration to us now it is a valid point in that it draws a sinister line to the increasing commodification of beauty and the inherent value placed on external appearances.
Unfortunately, it takes some time for the film to settle down into this conversational mode, its first half instead spent wandering off into artistic digressions and obscure flashbacks. Since Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988) redefined exactly what constitutes documentary film there has been an increasing requirement to incorporate principles of narrative film into feature documentary; contemporary pieces universally tend to use flashbacks, reconstruction, animation and various other post-modernist methods to explore a real life story and provide some relief from the constant back-and-forth between interviewer and subject. Some forego an explicit narrative altogether and rely solely on the interpretation of sound and image, such as John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses (2010). Desire for Beauty sets to its task in a similar way, juxtaposing the traditional talking heads and expositions with its obscure, distracting artistry. While the film is valid in form, in execution these interludes distract from the subject rather than enhancing it and supplemented by a melodramatic, soap-opera score the film does at times tread a tedious line. If anything Agata Kulesza is under-utilised during these interludes; the actress casts a formidable presence in the few narrative scenes she is featured in, without having a great deal to do or say.
Despite the distracting contrast between its narrative and documentary modes, Desire for Beauty is an insightful examination of the modern pursuit of aesthetic perfection. Perhaps most interestingly, objectively speaking none of the subjects seem in particular need of cosmetic surgery, all of them young, attractive and physically fit. But, like the documentary is keen to stress, it is all a matter of self-perception, the relatable fixation on one’s flaws superseding the celebration of our virtues. The same critic who mentions the ‘beauty machines’ goes on to speculate that ‘the question “who am I” will be very important again’ when we can shape our appearance at will. At present, sadly, the reverse seems to be true; the question ‘who am I’ appears to be inextricably linked to how we look.