The movie follows four people who are about to undergo plastic surgery. In interviews led by Agata Kulesza, they talk about their fears, reasons for the surgery and what changed for them afterwards. Additionally experts from various fields weigh in on what makes so many people opt for plastic surgery and what makes beauty beautiful.
Apart from the interesting topic, Desire for Beauty mixes fictional elements with personal stories and expert opinions, creating a varied structure that I liked a lot, even though it sometimes meant that it did get a little side-tracked.
All four of the people who were followed by the documentary go into surgery for different reasons, but all four of them expect their lives to be better afterwards. Kasia feels her breasts are too small, she feels stuck with a teenager body. Kamilla has always been bullied because of the size of her nose. Kuba hopes that a few Botox injections (not the first things he had done) will help him with his acting career. And Monika just wants to stay young. [Unfortunately Monika is given hardly any screen time, maybe because she doesn’t go through with the surgery, so I was a little confused about her story.]
And then afterwards we see what became of them: Monika, being actually confronted with death when one of her friends is diagnosed with cancer, realizes that staying young is not important – growing old is. Kuba is still looking for parts, but won’t do Botox anymore, at least not in the cheeks, fearing for his facial expressions. Kamilla has slowly started to really look at and like herself, now that the imaginary wall in the form of her nose has been downsized, but still has a long way to go. Kasia has achieved everything she wanted to achieve with her new-found confidence. As one of the interviewed experts said (I’m paraphrasing), when you already have everything and plastic surgery is only dotting the is and crossing the ts, it can help. But when you think that it’s the solution for all of your issues, you won’t be so lucky.
These stories are framed by the interviews Agata Kulesza did, on the one hand with the four people in line for surgery, on the other hand with various experts, though it wasn’t always entirely clear for me who those experts were and in what field they were experts in – the descriptions were all in Polish (I sometimes could make sense of them at least) and the subtitles spotty. There was especially one guy who made me very nervous with his statements and I would have liked to know from where he came. [ETA: his name is Piotr Najsztub and he is a journalist.] For example, he said that women put themselves in a concentration camp where they had to work for the dark overlord Beauty and they themselves where their own guards and I just wanted to make him research the word “patriarchy” and give him a basic course in feminism because what kind of shit is that? Generally, a little more feminist analysis would have helped to make the film more insightful than it ended up being.
Ironically the film does tend to stay on the surface of things. There were a couple of moments in the interviews that articulated a little more depth. I particularly liked the two dream sequences that expressed Kasia’s and Kamilla’s fears and expectations with anaesthetized. I also appreciated that we got to delve a little into the past of these two women with fictional moments – although they didn’t add much that we didn’t know already. It would have been nice to get it for all four of them. And I liked Kulesza’s interview style which was direct and personal and all about the people.
In the end, I’m afraid though that the filmmakers chosen neutral stance avoided some actual criticism – not of the people and their choices, but of a patriarchic, neoliberal society that expects everybody to constantly work on their bodies to be fit and – especially the women in it – beautiful.