About Face: Supermodels Then and Now: TV Review

Sundance About Face Carmen Dell'Orefice P 2012
Sundance Film Festival
A model-centric documentary that doesn't spend enough time on its best features.

The documentary reveals the fashion industry's true feelings on aging and plastic surgery.

Though the women (and one man, Calvin Klein) interviewed in photographer and filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' new documentary about supermodels and aging are all veterans of the scene — from Christy Turlington, 43, to China Machado, 81 — the brief autobiographies and discussions of their heyday do little to illuminate anything new about the fashion world. Peppered throughout, though, are personal comments begging to be further explored.

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The project is done in Greenfield-Sanders' trademark portrait style, but the impact of that intimacy is diminished by the large number of interviewees. Instead of going in-depth with a few models, there's a carousel of names and familiar faces each awarded only a few soundbites, taken up mostly with biography, before the camera moves on. As the documentary builds, the interviews and accompanying photographs are interspersed with scenes of the many women meeting up and preparing for a photo shoot. They approach their camera tests with confidence and deep familiarity, and each one shows — even in those small moments — why she was not just a model but of the rare "super" breed.

Greenfield-Sanders' appreciation for beauty is apparent, but there is unexpected pathos, as when Cheryl Tiegs talks sincerely about strangers saying hello to her on the street because they had seen her photographs and how that made her think, "Now I have friends." 

Greenfield-Sanders seems to really miss an opportunity in not exploring more aggressively some curiosities of the industry, such as when Paulina Porizkova says, "What people called sexual harassment, we called compliments." The documentary also alights briefly on drug use and the abuse of young girls who are made up to look like women, as well as how AIDS affected the industry, but none of these topics are dwelt on for long.

VIDEO: China Machado, Beverly Johnson 'About Face' Sundance 2012

The subject of plastic surgery is broached, with the interviewees almost evenly divided on the issue, and there are nebulous comments about inner beauty (says Marisa Berenson: "When you get older, you build something else in your core, which goes beyond the physical, because it has to"). In fact, Berenson's remarks seem to sum up most everyone's feelings about beauty: It becomes a big deal only once you lose it, and then you can spend time on the rest of you.

Of all the women, Isabella Rossellini is, unsurprisingly, the most intriguing, saying the issue is not that women want to be young perhaps, but that advertising is geared toward youth simply because the young are more gullible. Further, she makes some worthy remarks about the inherent misogyny of fashion and plastic surgery ("Is this the new foot-binding?"), but the thread ends there and isn't picked up by any of her modeling peers.

About Face is at its best when the focus is on aging itself. Eighty-one-year old Carmen Dell'Orefice talks about not caring when her look is dissected by photographers — she just walks out. But she admits that plastic surgery is a natural part of her regimen. Jerry Hall, no fan of facial enhancements, candidly proclaims: "Of course it's no fun getting old and sick and dying. We all know that's coming, and it's a bore. But why shouldn't we be allowed to age? When I turned 50, I felt a sense of achievement." It is in those honest, even if conflicting, moments that About Face finally feels intimate, instead of just a fashion parade.