Beautopia (1998): Katharina Otto’s Docu about International Fashion Industry

Sundance Film Festival 1998 (World Premiere Documentary Competition)–Large in scale and ambitious in goal, Katharina Otto’s Beautopia is nonetheless a disappointingly rambling documentary about the international fashion industry that is neither insightful nor particularly entertaining.

Using a cross-cultural perspective, the film centers on four aspiring models from the Czech Republic, Britain, Germany and the U.S., as they embark on a potentially glamorous career, one full of unanticipated risk–and excitement. Impaired by a repetitive structure and Otto’s commonplace narration, docu should travel the festival road, with some prospects for a shorter version (of one hour containing the solid material), to air on PBS, Cable and other venues.

Like movie stars, supermodels these days represent one of the most coveted professions for beautiful and ambitious teenage girls, and not just in the Western World. Apparently, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Elle Macpherson, Claudia Schiffer, who are all interviewed in the film, provide the new role models for girls all over the world. “I never thought of models as real people,” observes Otto early on, a comment that promises to provide a critical dissection of the “real” fashion world.

When first introduced, the Czech Petra, German Susanne, British Sarah, and American Dana share only two things in common: Each has won a local beauty context, and each aspires to become “the next supermodel.” Beautopia follows the journeys of the four teenagers, as they travel from their respective home country, in search of the coveted “big break” that in no time will propel them to global stardom.

Docu begins with a factual expose of the first steps in a modeling career: getting a good agent, undergoing “basic training” in schools, auditioning and so on. In the process, Otto debunks some prevalent stereotypes regarding the fashion milieu, such as the much talked about “glamour,” or the notion that models’ lifestyle is one dominated by music, drugs and parties.

The goal is to be spotted and appear in a major fashion capital (Paris, Rome, New York). However, upon arrival in their new environments, the girls realize that not only they are on their own, but that their business conducts its affairs as similarly and as harshly as any other competitive enterprise based on the law of supply and demand.

Among this docu’s more interesting aspects is a discussion of the constant pressure on young models to change their look (over which they have practically no say), and the large amounts of money they are forced to spend on their image, before they begin to generate any income and pay old debts to their agencies.

Of course, it’s impossible to know how representative or typical the four women are of the numerous aspiring teenagers in their own countries–or in the world. Nonetheless, the fact remains that they are not terribly interesting–or stunningly beautiful for that matter.

Tis becomes obvious when the great supermodels are interviewed, particularly vets like Hutton or Schiffer. Igniting the screen with their extraordinary beauty and charisma, these divas suggest that perhaps the four teenagers don’t possess what it takes to become supermodels. Luck, or the hand of fate, in getting the big break may be crucial, but Otto underestimates other relevant factors. For example, there’s an interesting glimpse of an audition with celeb designer Mizrahi, but Otto never tells us why the latter decided not to sign on the candidate.

Much is made of the “lost childhood” suffered by the quartet of models, though the docu underestimates the fact that each one of them has consciously chosen her profession and has more than willingly embraced the difficulties involved in pursuing a modeling career.

There’s also a problem of tone, as evident in Otto’s narration. Her running commentary doesn’t reveal much about the fashion world beyond what’s already known from such superlative works as Unzipped (and other docus). Unable to decide whether to criticize or to poke fun at the ironies inherent in the fashion industry, Beautopia drags from one story to another, ultimately overextending its welcome by at least 15 minutes.

Credits

A Fox Lorber Features production of a Film Manufacturers presentation, in association with Hit & Run productions. Produced, directed, written by Katharina Otto. Executive producers, Tony Smith, Hilary Shor. Line producer, Penny CM Stankiewicz. Camera (color), Oliver Bokelberg; editor, Bernadine Colish; music, Hayley Moss, Frank Otto, Bernt Kohler-Adams; sound (Dolby), Jeff Livesey; associate producer and technical adviser, Alda Balestra. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 18, 1998. Running time: 104 min.

Cast

Featuring: Sarah Cookson, Dana Douglas, Susanne Hoppe, Petra Svabenska. With: Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Lauren Hutton, Elle Macpherson, Kate Moss, Claudia Schiffer, Oscar de la Renta, Isaac Mizrahi, Valentino, and others.