Louis Theroux: Under The Knife

September 26, 2007 by  
Filed under Reviews

BBC2, Sunday 7th October 2007louis.jpg

Surely, the producers of Louis Theroux’s programme should have begun the title of this particular episode with ‘Reality’. ‘Under The Knife’ certainly hacked up my sense of the beautiful as I unwarily (foolishly) sat down with a cup of tea and three large chocolate biscuits to watch the Sunday evening show. This instalment found Mr. Theroux in Beverley Hills dipping in and out of surgery with victims of the Hollywood beauty machine. A mesmerizing insight into the workings of the supply and the demand of the culture of perfection, it portrayed the Dr. / patient dynamic with unnerving clarity, all wholeheartedly proselytising their approach to bodily improvement. Spliced with shots of foreheads being methodically peeled back and nipples popped open like blow-up airbed valves, this made for a somewhat disconcerting start to the week.

With the master of reflective composure performing his customary lurk in the lives of others, the most compelling issue that comes through in Theroux’s documentary is the bizarre jumble of things that make up our idea of reality; our conception of ourselves and the world around us. Naturally, I found myself asking, what is it that pushes someone to that point of unhappiness that the only solution is to change the way they look? One of the doctors shrugs, matter-of-factly pronouncing, “welcome to Hollywood…This is the way it is?, while Steve, a somewhat more delicate soul – one of the “creations? – confesses more intimately through a nip/tucked peculiarly dispassionate face that little things bother him, and if he couldn’t change these things it would be difficult to live with. Self-perception is of course a messy business. Simply putting it down to the pressure from the media and beauty industry, or personal complexes of vanity or self-loathing doesn’t quite capture the intricacy of the individuals involved, which this programme could of course only go some way to investigating. And on a Sunday evening after the quite wonderful gamut of toned-thighs, pert bums, cauliflower-ears and broken noses belonging to the focused English and Australian Rugby players (not an image hang-up in sight), getting my head around this one proved rather challenging.

At times both touching and terrifying, “shopping for a perfect body? here is shown to be an actuality at the extreme of consumerist society buying into ‘the dream’. ‘Under The Knife’ brings home the potential possessed by those with sufficient funds to act upon desires founded in insecurity. Indeed, the consensus of the surgeons is that they “change lives?. As a doctor so neatly puts it, one can spend three years on the psychiatrist’s couch or an hour in surgery. Bam. There you go, problem solved. How Fairy Godmother. Indeed, many of the patients seemed genuinely happier with their changes, despite the questionable improvement of their appearance (note the pectoral implants that slide outwards!), but do the anxieties stop there? When the cameras stop rolling does the magic remain? As one lady had her droopy breast hoisted and stitched, Louis enquired as to the point at which a patient should really stop having surgical procedures and I just couldn’t help wondering whether it was more the mere act of doing something to combat a feeling of inadequacy that was the enhancement itself.

Having taken the leap into liposuction himself, we are left with a Hasselhoff-esque image of Theroux sprinting down the beach – a lovehandle-less ideal – but something in me harked back to the scene where he tenderly bid a woeful farewell to his extracted body fat. As the credits rolled up and the taste of the biscuits, sweet and by now quite sickly, lingered in my mouth I don’t quite know if I was rubbing my belly in concern of its fatty content or as a comforting gesture against the surgeons knife.

By Susan Allen