If the fashion world is a constantly shifting fantasy of pomp and circumstance, then the supermodel is the imagined object of affection both men and women, boys and girls, yearn to possess. So the pressure to be perfect builds and builds, and these professional gliders ride a surface-level wave of artificial imagery until their bodies give out, or minds give up—whichever comes first. In her personal diary/documentary Picture Me, supermodel Sara Ziff connects four years of footage shot by her boyfriend and co-director Ole Schell to explore this complex relationship between subject and viewer. Unfortunately, neither Ziff nor Schell have the sort of knack for cinematic structure, pacing, or editing to handle the potentially weighty material, and their handheld exposé on the moral contradictions of a booming industry turns into a juvenile therapy session for a young woman in crisis.
Picture Me begins with an animated template of a teenager's school notebook covered in candid snap shots, cute scribbles, and pink Post-it Notes, turning the opening credits into a low-level memory bank for a giddy girl on the verge of womanhood. This fits considering Ziff begins her odyssey into the fashion abyss at 18, fresh out of high school and recently plucked from the streets of NYC by a savvy photographer. Ziff seems to rise through the fashion ranks seamlessly and effortlessly, impressing clients and agents with her down-home smile and raspy voice. The money, fame, and attention bring momentary smiles, but Ziff soon begins to tire of the constant workload, deviant photographers, and the lack of purpose in her profession. Picture Me then turns into a collective burst of confessionals by Ziff and her model brethren detailing the moral ambiguities of their surroundings, personal regrets, and uncertainties about the future. What started out as a personal awakening degenerates into a simplistic sermon on the collective objectification of women.
Shot on varying levels of crummy, blown-out digital video, Picture Me carries the annoying amateurish texture of most poorly shot student films. But it's the cloying methodology Ziff personifies in her emotional breakdowns and judgmental assertions that make her film so undeniably flawed as social critique. Extensive interviews with fashion designers, photographers, and agents are noticeably absent, replaced by a staggering amount of disjointed, sloppy conversations with other models. Even Ziff's outsider parents get the shaft, represented as caring but ultimately clueless entities in the filmmaker's life. We never get a good feeling for Ziff's relationship with anyone else, including her boyfriend Schell, who only makes an appearance when given the chance to ask ridiculously ill-conceived and obvious questions about Ziff's experiences. Throughout Picture Me, it seems the answers are already set in stone.
If anything, Ziff's meandering story gives the lower-income models (relatively speaking) an outlet to vent their frustrations with the business they both love and hate. Being put under the tough microscope day after day takes its toll, and when Ziff allows these women to speak without interruption, their stories breathe an authentic anguish into the contrived proceedings. In this world, models are disposable, and every year replacements get off the busses from Romania, Ohio, and everywhere in between following a hollow ideology about realistic beauty. Finally, in a denouement of rising music cues and moral platitudes, Picture Me becomes a warning sign for young women of all ages despite the limitless ineptitudes in the filmmaking department.
After once again flooding the frame with cheesy cut-out animation, Ziff muses, "Why be a prop in someone else's story, when you can tell your own?" The intention is apt: empowering young women to transcend the dangerous jargon of modern pop-culture hysteria to find something personal possibly singular in purpose. But Picture Me forces the issue in such broad, often clumsy strokes, that the message grows stale with each passing frame. For a film obsessed with the layers of imagery, Picture Me never gets past its own reflection.