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The Body Beautiful (1990) | Review

This review is not going to contain spoilers but it's going to talk about the film in detail so if you wanted to watch it and feel like this would spoil it for you, then here is your warning to stop reading and go and watch the film. As of the date I'm posting this, the film is currently available for free on BFI Player.


The Body Beautiful (1990) is an autobiographical film exploring the complex and often adversarial relationship between mothers and daughters, with Ngozi Onwurah juxtaposing her experience as a fashion model with her mother's invisibility, in relation to desirability, because of her age and her mastectomy. There is a struggle throughout for the daughter to see her mother as a complex human being, mirroring how many people feel as they grow into adulthood and are forced to see their parents as more than just the people who raised them, but as those who have desires outside their children. What I found was that the film was attempting to bring the relationship between the filmmaker and her mother physically closer, portrayed in the opening where the two women sleep naked in bed together.

Bodies, and how they relate to desire, are the main focus of this film. As the title suggests, the filmmaker wants the audience to reframe what it is they view as beautiful and why they wouldn't choose to perceive an older woman's body this way. By depicting her mother's body in a sensual place, it undermines the idea that older women's bodies are invisible and are unworthy of this kind of touch, despite what patriarchy insists. This is put in direct opposition with the daughter's modelling career, where her job is to be an object of desire all the time, for the sake of advertising clothes. Where one is used to being naked and that being the standard, the other is completely alien to this. The body is where this conversation take its physicality, materialised in the various depictions of womanhood.

Film still from The Body Beautiful. A woman stands by a body of water in a red dress. Her arms are outstretched to the left.
Source: MUBI

This film works to normalise nudity in all senses. When we are shown women's bodies in various states of undress, many of these not sexual at all, it is in direct opposition to how patriarchy views naked women's bodies. They are not their to be looked at, but to simply exist. However, on top of this, the filmmaker is very careful to distinguish between what is a sensual encounter and what is simply nudity. A woman who has had a mastectomy is capable of inhabiting both spaces and this is done with the aid of her daughter.

This film reads as a love letter to the body but more importantly, as a love letter to the filmmaker's mother, who she doesn't want to feel invisible any longer. Onwurah is able to reflect on how she has contributed to her mother's pain and the extent by which society in general is responsible for how young women view their mothers. Because this was a perspective not often acknowledged on-screen, I found the film wholly refreshing and was kind of angry that more films hadn't explored this topic before. I've never seen a person with a mastectomy in a film before and I've very rarely seen a depiction of a cancer patient in a sensual setting either. Altogether, I think this is a very important film.


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