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Simon Read [Celluloid 06.18.16] Denmark thriller drama

Writer/director Mads Matthiesen's second feature is a stylish, dramatic thriller, chock-full of beautiful people wearing fabulous clothes, taking expensive designer drugs and having sex in chic European hotel rooms. Part morality tale, part character study, it's the story of a young ingénue, an aspiring model, her rise to fame and subsequent fall from grace - all set against the backdrop of the Paris fashion world.

Although the story is, in itself, inherently interesting, the execution is frustratingly leaden, and as things unfold the characters' roles never expand beyond simple ciphers for the writers' fairly pedestrian message. The result is a film which occasionally promises to become genuinely gripping, but instead scores a series of repeated own goals, always forgoing any opportunity to become more than the sum of its parts. The overwrought drama appears heavy-handed and predictable, where it clearly aspires to be sly and shocking.

Emma (Maria Palm), a strikingly beautiful girl from the suburbs of Denmark, has been offered a contract with a Parisian modelling agency. Waving goodbye to her parents and her dim but good natured boyfriend Frederick, she soon discovers that success in the Paris fashion world requires a finely honed set of social instincts and an incredibly thick skin (is this really a shock to anyone?). After botching her first photo shoot by acting "like a goddamned zombie", she confronts the hunky, sexily stubbled English photographer Shane (Ed Skrein) in a nightclub and convinces him to give her another chance. Shane is smitten by Emma's sudden aggressive attitude, quickly establishing her as both his live-in muse and his lover. When their next photo shoot is published Emma becomes a huge success and is offered all kinds of exciting deals and contracts, inducing the hallowed cover of Bazaar. However, when a drug-fuelled party at a hip young playboy's mansion results in a drunken infidelity, Emma finds the ground beneath her feet shifting wildly, and she struggles to maintain her sanity as her career begins to collapse before it has even begun.

The narrative structure of The Model hangs on a fairly well-worn premise, that of the naive, impressionable youth faced with the temptation of glamour and opportunity, all fraught with danger and tinged with darkness. (All About Eve, The Red Shoes, A Star Is Born - all play with similar ideas.) While the film presents the fashion world as competitive and uncompromising, it's actually rather refreshing in not pushing this too far. Yes, Emma has to deal with rivals for Shane's affections while simultaneously dodging sleazy creeps in nightclubs, but her agent is a kind and straightforwardly honest man, and her flatmate is encouraging and supportive. Additionally, although Shane's motives are relatively sketchy, he actually seems like a fairly decent guy. While I'm not one to defend the bizarro world of modelling and high-fashion, the film is stronger and more interesting for simply offering us a semi-realistic glance at life in the industry. This aspect of the film is probably the most entertaining, just watching people working and interacting in a world of surface and make-believe, observing how this becomes their obsession and consumes their entire lives.

The main issue with the film, however, is the eponymous model herself. So devoid is Emma of personality or strength of character that the audience feels as though they're watching a ghost wandering around a series of glitzy set-pieces. Things just seem to happen to Emma without any tangible, overarching purpose, no real sense or thought directing her actions. This may be part of the message - she is after all an aspiring, teenage runway model whose cultural awareness begins and ends with Vogue - but this does not make for an engaging central character. A scene around the midway point during which Emma and Shane attend a swish dinner party populated by designers and fashion execs offers Emma the chance to explain her motivations for becoming a model, and this scene alone strikes the right cord (yet still feels oddly wet). Emma explains that she felt like an ugly duckling growing up as a skinny, long-limbed and clumsy youth, that she dreamed of showing her peers back home that she could make it on the catwalk. Had the character retained this focus and brought her desire to the fore throughout the film, we'd have something interesting, but it's all too soon forgotten, and that's a shame. It doesn't help that Palm's acting style is terribly cold and closed-off, and she seems to go to great pains to ensure that we never know what she's thinking, only that she's beautiful and troubled.

When the story takes a sudden dark twist in its last act, as Emma reaches for the kitchen knife in a Black Swan/Maps To The Stars inflected moment of madness, I couldn't help but wonder how somebody so boring could do something so interesting. The final scenes of the film, while ostensibly plausible, are presented in such a way as to appear maddeningly implausible, completely at odds with the rest of the story. In terms of tone it feels like part of another film. In fact, the very last scene results in probably the biggest (unintentional) laugh, as we're asked to accept events so desperately contrived that we can't take them seriously for a even a moment.

To the film's credit, Matthiesen is clearly a talented director. The film is lush, beautifully shot and framed, and for the most part the performances (at least from secondary characters) are convincing. I liked Emma's flatmate (Charlotte Tomaszewska) , a veteran of the modelling scene who's fled her boring family in rural Poland and found a new life for herself in Paris; and as Shane, Skrein hits the right notes of swaggering cockiness, leading to a doe-eyed obsession, and eventual bewildered betrayal. It's just a shame the film didn't take a more risky attitude in telling the story of the lead character, or at least in providing us with a satisfying journey and a decent ending.

Nevertheless, if you like watching people with perfect features shouting at each other while dressed in clothes you could never hope to afford, you might enjoy this. There is a good film in here somewhere just screaming to get out.

Recommended Release: The Neon Demon

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