The Curse of Being Good-Looking

INTERVIEW. Is being born with good looks an undivided blessing? Mads Matthiesen asks that question in his new film, "The Model," about a young model struggling to break into the Paris fashion world and losing herself in the process. Göteborg Nordic Competition. World Premiere.

Mads Matthiesen is obsessed with "the body."

My films tend to be about the individual against the community or society, the clash between the two and the problems that arise when you step outside conventions

"The body is this machine we all walk around with, but it also affects us mentally," the director says. "We look so different and how we look is very important to how we're perceived. That becomes especially apparent if you happen to be extremely big, say, or very, very beautiful."

The latter is the case for Emma, the protagonist of Matthiesen's "The Model." Young Emma has signed with a modelling agency in Paris. The first scene of the film shows her saying goodbye to her boyfriend and family in their small Danish town to start her new life in Paris. But modelling and the fashion industry aren't what she expected, and she finds herself in a series of situations that test her judgment. A central question asked by the film is how far we are willing to go to live out our dreams.

Like Matthiesen's debut feature, "Teddy Bear," about a bodybuilder who finds a girlfriend in Thailand, his second film "The Model" revolves around how others view our choices and the things we do to feel accepted.

"My films tend to be about the individual against the community or society, the clash between the two and the problems that arise when you step outside conventions – or, as in Emma's case, when you want to fit in and be accepted at any cost."

Emma dreams about making fashion magazine covers and walking the runway at haute couture fashion shows for Chanel. But the fashion industry is ruthless and the models are a means for moving merchandise. If they don't meet the demands, they get the boot.

Matthiesen wanted to examine what it does to a person to be as beautiful as Emma, how in the worst case it can make someone lose touch with reality and sell out their values to get approval.

The Model Photo: Carole Bethuel

Mistaking the Limelight for Love

"If you're beautiful, you quickly learn that you can use your looks to get ahead in the world. You might even start believing that your looks are the only thing that give you worth – that nothing else counts. And the more you have that affirmed, the more it feeds your low self-esteem," Matthiesen says.

In Paris, Emma falls head over heels for a hotshot photographer, Shane, and they start a relationship. He gives her modelling career a leg up and soon she's gracing the covers of glossy magazines, just like she dreamed she would. She forgets about her former boyfriend, Frederik, back in Denmark, as she's seduced by the life of a high-fashion model. In the process, she compromises her values and loses her sense of what's real and what's not, what's right and wrong.

"The fashion industry is pure fiction. It's selling a fantasy, and that confuses her," Matthiesen says. He thinks that happens to a lot of models and others who make it in a glamorous industry.

"The film world is the same," he adds.

In 2012, the 39-year-old director got a taste of what it's like to be showered with attention. On stage in front of 3000 people at the Sundance Film Festival, he received the award for best director for his debut feature "Teddy Bear." The spotlight came to feel like approval, like a kind of love.

"It's not. But it's easy to mistake for love. Then you come down again, and how do you deal with that? When you don't get called about fashion shows or make the covers anymore, does that mean you're a failure?"

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The Model Photo: Carole Bethuel

Chewed Up by the Adult World

Like Kim Kold, who played Dennis the bodybuilder in "Teddy Bear," Maria Palm, who plays Emma in "The Model," isn't a professional actor but was cast from the milieu depicted in the film. She has travelled the world as a model, shot campaigns for the American designer Marc Jacobs and been in Vogue.

Before shooting, Matthiesen cast 50-70 models. He picked Palm, because she had a vulnerability and a natural ability to give of herself, he says.

"She doesn't have her guard up. I think she could go far as an actor if that's what she wants to do. She has the skills and burns up the screen."

For the director, it was vital to have a professional model in the part.

"It helps create credibility. And Maria was a big help in establishing a realistic setting for the scenes of photo shoots and talks with the agent."

Like the film's Emma, many models start their career at a very young age, which increases the risk of distorting their image of what's important, Matthiesen says. Not least, because we're living in a time when self-representation in social media is such a powerful force and you can create another identity for yourself than the one you have in the real world.

The Model Photo: Carole Bethuel

"Imaging and staging yourself in social media is a big part of life today, in a way that to me is insane. Looking for approval in distant relationships and thinking external values are what's important instead of close relationships and inner values. A young person can get a bit lost in that, I think."

The film is a look at what happens when you grow up too fast. When you step into the adult world and get "chewed up," as Matthiesen puts it.

"Young people today enter adult life much sooner than people did 20 years ago. And the fashion industry presents a clear image of what it means to be 16 and have to deal with all these things you might not be ready to deal with on your own" •

More about the film

"The Model" is produced by Jonas Bagger for Zentropa and is backed by the Danish Film Institute. Trustnordisk is handling world sales.

The film is world premiering at Göteborg Film Festival (29 January – 8 February) and is showing during Rotterdam Film Festival (27 January – 7 February) as an IFFR Live screening event. Domestic release is 11 February.

Read press releases about The Model in strong line-up at Göteborg and about live screening event in Rotterdam.

Find more about film and director in factsheets right.

Watch trailer