Carlos Caridad Montero’s fest-vaunted feature debut is a darkly comic satire on the excesses of the Venezuelan beauty industry.
Venezuela famously has more international beauty pageant winners than any other country, with thousands of the country’s mothers prepared to do what it takes to get their daughter to the top — and their family out of poverty. One such mother — unhinged, dangerous and compellingly played by Venezuelan Diana Penalver — is the target of Carlos Caridad-Montero’s satirical gaze in 3 Beauties. What initially looks like a local dark comedy can easily be seen as an entertaining attack on the suffering and insecurity generated by the international beauty industry to serve its own ends, and it’s presumably this universality which has led to multiple festival bookings for the pic, with more surely to follow.
One-time beauty queen Perla (Penalver) is the single mother of the marvelously named Carolina de Monaco Camacho Camacho (played as an adult by Fabiola Arace) and her sister, Estefania (Josette Vidal), as well as the heavily sidelined Salvador (Fabian Moreno). Perla is a monomaniac, whose single life goal is to prepare Carolina for beauty pageant stardom: “You must learn to betray,” she exhorts Carolina, whilst teaching her how to lose weight by vomiting; later she suggests to Carolina that she’ll probably have to sleep with a few old guys to get ahead.
“Princes don’t exist — there are only princesses,” she adds bitterly, and indeed the girl’s father is entirely absent from the film, not referenced even once. This is another LatAm movie which men are either animals or absent, part of an ongoing attempt to undermine the continent’s abiding machismo.
When the action moves forward some 10 years following an accident which nearly kills Carolina, the family is in the powerful grip of another kind of religion. The script cleverly points up that both the Catholic church (as presented here) and the beauty pageant business can be similarly manipulative, materialistic and dangerous. “We beseech you, Lord,” Perla pleads in the film’s best line, “to speed up our metabolisms.” As Carolina — and Estefania, too, driven by envy — prepare for the Miss Republic contest, it’s through the early scenes of this lengthy second section that 3 Beauties really shows its teeth, with the girls lined up and defined as either ‘tenderloin’ or ‘spam.’
The big gala finale is impressively shot but lightweight given what has come before, failing fully to capitalize on all the sense of threat that has been built up and descending too easily into an implausible combination of farce and tragedy. But the final scene — with its sideways wink at Some Like It Hot — is very nicely done, indeed.
There’s a political reading of 3 Beauties which says that it’s about Venezuelan dictators (Perla) and unquestioningly manipulated masses (her daughters). That may be over the top, but neither is it quite enough to say that Caridad-Montero is exclusively focusing on the country’s beauty contests. The film is taking a general look at our image-based culture.
To the eyes of a more politically correct culture, Perla, as superbly played by Penalver, is a slightly overweight, bustling seamstress, the very definition of middle class. But her wish to do the “right thing” for her girls makes her a monster, concealing a very dangerous woman who unfailingly does the wrong thing, causing them all kinds of damage (plastic surgery is just the beginning) and effectively breaking up the family in the name of her distorted ambition.
One effective moment has Estefania trailing blood around the stage from underneath her pageant dress; the girls’ attempts at getting a boyfriend, El Chino (Diego Guerrero), are also screwed up by the beauty pageant business. This is dark stuff, but the film doesn’t seem to want to confront the full consequences, preferring to linger on the surface consequences rather than explore troubled minds — so that while Penalver’s is a fine performance, it is not a deep one. But then again, there’s the troubling suggestion that in the case of Perla, there may in fact be no depths to explore.