Powerful, positive, tasteful and deeply erotic.
THIS REVIEW DEALS WITH SUBJECTS THAT SOME PEOPLE WILL FIND DISTURBING.
This wonderful documentary is powerful, erotic and fascinating. The UK press kit renders its title as "NoBody's Perfect", with that capital B supplying a double meaning.
SLIGHT SPOILERS. Between 1957 and 1961, the tranquiliser thalidomide was marketed without adequate tests. When taken by a pregnant woman, the drug sometimes aborted the child, or more frequently deformed the arms (and sometimes legs) of the developing foetus. The drug harms the foetus but not the genome: people born with this deformity do not pass it to their own children.
Film-maker Niko von Glasow has normal legs, but his malformed arms are so small that they're concealed inside his T-shirt's sleeves. We first see him with his young daughter Mandel, confessing that he's afraid to go swimming bare-chested because people might laugh at his short arms.
Apparently inspired by the Rylstone Women's Institue and 'Calendar Girls', von Glasow conceives a project: 12 thalidomide-afflicted people — six women and six men, including himself — will pose nude for a calendar and art installation, celebrating their distinctive bodies. He contacts eleven others, who have transcended their affliction to attain an impressive range of social roles: they include an astrophysicist, a lawyer, a politician, a visual artist, an equestrienne, a gardener, some home-makers, a receptionist and a professional actor. Some must use motorised wheelchairs, due to their malformed legs. All were born circa 1960, before thalidomide's problem was known. None are shy about exposing their abnormal limbs or (normal) genitals, but a couple of them are wary of revealing fiftyish waistlines.
We meet each individual, some more malformed than others. Simple tasks that other people take for granted are major undertakings: Mat Fraser wants a "thalidomide toilet" that would deal with the difficulties of wiping afterward. One of the men, asked if he would wish for a normal body, decides instead he would wish to be famous and to give up smoking. (Several of these people smoke, despite the difficulty of handling lighters and lit cigarettes with their malformed hands.) One individual declares from his wheelchair that he accepts his body but wishes he could change his personality. Despite their phocomelic arms, several of the women wear attractive make-up: I'd like to have seen how they apply it.
Doris Pakendorf has normal legs but no arms except one finger growing directly from her shoulder. In a cafe, she orders a beer in a stemmed glass so that she can grip it between her toes. I'm a sometime horseman, so I was riveted by the sequences showing Bianca Vogel astride her horse Roquefort. Using long reins to control the mount with her teeth and her extremely short arms, Vogel is a competitive equestrienne and show-jumper. She proudly shows us the ribbons she's won.
All of their lives are impressively normal. Kim Morton crawls on four stumped limbs to clean her house, but it's spotless. We meet her mother and husband, and she proudly shows a photo of her serviceman son.
We see home movies of three of these people as children, smiling and playing as they contend with stunted limbs, sometimes alongside normal siblings and affectionate parents. (Full disclosure: This sequence profoundly affected me for personal reasons. I was born — before thalidomide was marketed — with very slight malformities of my hands and one foot; not remotely as extreme as the deformities depicted in this film, yet my family stigmatised me as a 'disgrace' for this.) All the people here were raised by supportive families.
All twelve are candid about their sex lives, to varying degrees. One woman is openly lesbian. Two men drop hints that they're gay. I found all six of the thalidomide-affected women here extremely attractive and arousing; make of that what you will.
All twelve visit Niko's studio, submitting to professional hairstyling and make-up before stripping off and posing: gardener Theo holds flowers, Bianca caresses her horse. Petra wants to be photographed while a silk kerchief floats overhead, but asks that someone other than Niko (i.e., someone with normal arms) toss it into the frame: prejudice, or practicality?
The only photo that I disliked is Niko's. He poses nude alongside his clothed daughter Mandel (a minor), and she grins as she points to his penis. I wish she hadn't done this; it makes the portrait explicitly sexual rather than celebrating Niko's entire body. The 12 nude photos are then displayed in a public mall, and we see a very young boy grinning as he poses for his parents beside a life-size blow-up of this photo. Guess which part of the photo the boy is pointing at.
After the photo session, all 12 sitters (clothed again) enjoy a dinner together. Some eat with their toes, while others have their faces barely an inch from the dishes due to their very short arms. I'll confess that I was reminded of the wedding feast in Tod Browning's movie 'Freaks'. But that sequence was intentionally grotesque and horrific: these twelve people are laughing and socialising in a normal situation; their bodies require a new definition of 'normal', and they handle it wonderfully.
There's an unpleasant but honest sequence in which Niko visits the glutcorp that marketed thalidomide with inadequate testing, and which has never compensated the victims. This sequence is shot from floor level, so the corporate spokespeople's faces are not shown.
The film ends triumphantly. We see Niko on the beach, wearing only bathing trunks, his tiny phocomelic limbs bare to the sunshine. His daughter Mandel joins him. They step into the sea, holding hands. I was delighted that Niko overcame his phobia, but I worried that his small arms might have trouble with the current.
This is a powerful, impressive film. Deeply erotic, it celebrates the human body in all its strange shapes, and the triumph of the mind. Absolutely, I rate 'NoBody's Perfect' 10 out of 10.