groupies, girlfriends, and airheads: how models are portrayed in film

As Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film hits the cinema, a tale of fashion, models, and vampires, we look through the the ways models have been portrayed on the silver screen, from 'Blow-Up' to 'Zoolander' to 'Gia.'

by Oliver Lunn
15 June 2016, 1:51pm

Nicolas Winding Refn's new film, The Neon Demon, is a psycho-thriller set in the cutthroat world of fashion modeling. It's broadly about our beauty-fixated culture, bitter jealousy between models, and the exploitation of starry-eyed ingénues stepping out onto the catwalk. It's also about shape-shifting vampires who suck the blood of beautiful women in order to maintain their own youth. But its depiction of the fashion industry as a place where morals fall by the wayside, where ugliness lurks directly beneath beauty, is hardly new in cinema.

The fact is, models have never had an easy ride at the movies. Filmmakers have had too much fun painting them as airheads, groupies, girlfriends, or essentially walking mannequins who exist merely as filler. I'm not saying narcissistic people don't exist in the modelling industry; I'm saying we rarely ever see models portrayed as anything other than that on film, when we know for a fact that not all of them fit the Derek Zoolander mold. Some skateboard, some act, some breakdance. Where are they on our screens? Why are filmmakers so afraid of nuance?

Back in the 50s the idea of the empty-headed model was already set in stone. In the Audrey Hepburn rom-com Funny Face, a photographer struggles to find a model who exudes both intelligence and beauty. "A woman can be beautiful as well as intellectual," barks a magazine editor, loosely based on Diana Vreeland. To prove that point, Hepburn enters the frame as a bookstore clerk with zero aspirations of becoming a model. That is, until said photographer (Fred Astaire) sweeps in and offers her a free trip to Paris. Naturally her snobbish attitude towards the industry changes and she eventually joins the airheads.

Ten years later it was much the same — perhaps worse. The models in 1966's Blow-Up, Antonioni's cult portrait of Swinging London, are the playthings of a photographer — played by David Hemmings and loosely based on legendary lensman David Bailey. In the film, two fame-hungry models turn up at the photographer's door unannounced. They kneel before him, begging to be photographed. He eventually invites them in, strips them down, and engages in a threesome on his studio floor. Once he's done with them he boots them out with a look that says, 'Right, girls, I've got proper work to do now.' Blow-Up basically presents the photographer as a rockstar, the models as his groupies.

You'd think Robert Altman's Prêt-à-Porter — a satire shot on location during Paris Fashion Week, with a string of cameos that includes Carla Bruni, Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer — would have something different to say about the modeling industry. Perhaps some enlightening scenes on eating disorders or how some models take drugs to keep their weight in check. But no, the only dialogue we hear from the models is bitchy who-slept-with-who gossip. Then of course we see them elbowing each other out of the way as they exit the catwalk. The most radical the film gets is when a procession of nude models take to the catwalk, leaving a trail of slack-jaws at their feet. Most audience members are impressed by The Next Big Thing in fashion; one is outraged at the insanity of it all. Ultimately, Altman's satire feels a bit ham-fisted now, like an outsider's attempt at an in-joke.

The dark side of modeling omitted in Prêt-à-Porter did surface in 1998's Gia. But even that had its clichés. In it, Angelina Jolie plays one of America's first supermodels, Gia Marie Caranji. She's a punk kid from Philly who catches the eye of an agency in New York. They take her on despite her badass attitude: "Talking is not required in this profession… what comes out of your mouth is totally irrelevant." Soon she's sleeping with other models, snorting coke, her life coming undone at the seams. It's a familiar narrative: the industry and its excesses swallow her up. And while the film presents her as an anomaly — as a model with a brain — it pedals the same tropes as other films about the industry, surrounding the character with airheads who bitch about butt sizes all day long.

The fact is, the overarching message of Gia is just as trite as Derek Zoolander's light-bulb moment of profundity: "There's a lot more to life than being really, really ridiculously good looking." Which is also not far off what Terrence Malick was getting at with his 'fame isn't what it's cracked out to be' narrative in Knight of Cups. In that film — a glossy picture of the sordid underbelly of LA's high-flying elite — models are again viewed as playthings, playthings of the filmmaker and playthings of Christian Bale's playboy protagonist.

In one of the most egregious scenes, Bale dances around a hotel suite with two scantily clad models. They douse him in champagne and wrestle him on the bed like the aforementioned scene from Blow-Up. They have nothing to say, nothing to do except drape themselves over Bale's body. Here, too, the models are essentially passive, used to highlight the existential crisis that Bale's character undergoes. It's the same in a later scene, when we see him eye-ogle a fashion model (Freida Pinto) at an ostentatious house party. The only words we hear pass between them are, "what's your name?" Malick's camera drinks her in, and we're reminded that this is the filmmaker who made model Olga Kurylenko wave her hands in the air for 113 minutes in To the Wonder. He likes models.

Knight of Cups shows that even arthouse auteurs aren't particularly bothered with dispelling clichés of on-screen models. They, too, cast them as airheads, groupies, girlfriends, or simply as eye-candy to litter their frame with. There's no nuance in those portrayals. As in Hollywood, models are seen only in two dimensions. Don't get me wrong, satire is great — it's important to laugh at the absurdity of this industry just like any other industry — but it's also important to show that, sometimes, models don't have to be seen as vacuous, self-obsessed walking sculptures who are only good at sauntering back and forth on an elevated platform. With more and more models stepping over into the world of film — Abbey Lee, Cara Delevingne, Lily Cole — perhaps a fully drawn picture of that world will emerge in the years ahead.



Text Oliver Lunn
Photography courtesy of Warner Brothers

Blow Up
The Neon Demon