A lack of direction in this documentary on beauty and the search for perfection makes for a particular and sincere experience.
Desire for Beauty
Simone Weil, a left-leaning French philosopher, wrote, “There are three incomprehensible mysteries in the world. Beauty, justice and truth.” Desire for Beauty, Miguel Guadêncio’s documentary about four people undergoing plastic surgery, opens with this remark and picks apart the impenetrable truth of beauty and all its various meanings. It’s replete with ideas and empathy for a phenomenon that is the totem of our modern world and serves a great justice for its relentless honesty and intimacy with its subjects.
The unquenchable thirst for beauty and perfection is the primary concern of these four patients. A prologue introduces the viewer to the banality of their everyday lives, as well as their own unique ideological formations of desire. These introductions cement the will for perfection, which arguably plastic surgery will quite literally accomplish. But the question remains throughout the documentary: will a change in appearance really change one’s life? The answer is tackled in the epilogue, which casts a harrowing wave of deliberation and concern for all that has come before. Upon reflection, the film becomes more a meditation on life than anything specific.
From the outset, the interviewer, Agata Kulesza (heralded in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida), openly states the objective stance of the documentary toward the patients in question and, therefore, is able to present each subject bare. The patients open up entirely and speak of their personal reflections on beauty. This is cut with professional interviews featuring academics or experts in fields ranging from psychology to fashion. Guadêncio suggests that psychology and fashion are closely linked, likening the desire for beauty to a game of psychological warfare. The final scenes occur in flashback mode, highlighting the traumatic youth of each patient. These moments are stylistically potent with slow motion, invasive close-ups and dark tones that induce feelings of horror, even if the dramaturgy does slip into overdrive.
The imagery, photographed by Maciej Puczynski, resembles modern thought. It reflects instability and conflict in tonal range with areas of soft focus and warm depth representing nostalgia and dreams. The film embodies the dreams of these four lives. In an age where noses can be reshaped and breasts enlarged easily and with little disruption to daily life, these procedures give a sense of hope in the battle of self-image. But the question of desire-fulfillment is interminable, our mind’s eye will always find more to be improved on. These psychological insights are paramount to the film’s appeal and strength. From witty and innovative—one professor has the idea for what he calls “beautymats,” a machine equivalent to Photoshop but materialized for real life (a similar idea in concept to Woody Allen’s “Orgasmatron” for sex in Sleeper)—to the deeply metaphysical question of one’s sense of self, this film has a thought-provoking aptitude for everyone.
There is some joy to be had: marriage and parenthood are discussed in an optimistic light, religion and spirituality are suggested as strong paths for meaning and understanding, and love can be understood as the true benefactor of happiness. One might wonder how all these themes wind back to beauty; in fact, they are essential to one’s feelings and tolerance of beauty. The level of sadness one takes away is for the viewer to decide. For example, one patient, in conclusion, admits needing more time to work on the thoughts in her head. Is this troubling or progressive? It is both. This film is both.
After directing 200 videos by the age of 30 (according to IMDB), Desire for Beauty is Gaudêncio’s first feature-length documentary. It is no surprise, then, that this film could be divided into segments based on it’s formidable music and editing. From orchestral scores designed to fit a period drama set in the English hills, to crescendos suggesting Jack Torrance (The Shining) is behind the door with an axe, the compositional score of Jorge Quintela can feel a little stretched at times. One sequence plays out like a metaphorical nightmare for a patient while under anesthesia. She runs through the vast woods, crows’ overhead, and dark clouds approaching, as though the knife cutting through her and inserting the silicone implants is the savior she seeks. Desire for Beauty can be very busy, often spilling over the edge, but this is part of the attraction; non-stop energy, passion and thoughts layer the surface, it’s a preferable method of telling this story.
After such an assortment of ideas, it makes sense to formulate some closing opinion on the subject of beauty. In the cynic’s handbook, a concern for appearance is the icing on the cake of a superficial world reared on reality TV, fast food, and indirect communication systems. This cosmic illusion might have been an initial criticism, but after observing a deeply meditative film on the subject, it is not so easy to decipher. All must choose for themselves.