In the question of whether art imitates life, it is often presumed that art will be more refined, more beautiful, than life. We see this portrayed in films consistently, with movie versions of real people often exceeding the physical attractiveness of the original subjects. The cinema has always been a distilled microcosm of beauty and escapism, ever since its inception.
Still, there has been a push in recent years for realism to take to the screen. Ambivalent endings, the occasional size 12 figure and gritty dialogue have arrived. Stories are told about ordinary people, living ordinary lives. Storylines no longer require a rags-to-riches transformation to have merit, nor are they just about the great and the good. They can be told about office work, wartime or governesses – anything goes, from living situation to occupation.
With all this realism around, surely we ought to have been prepared for a 51- year-old woman to look like a 51-year-old woman. I speak of Nicole Kidman in Destroyer.
Instead, commentary on the film never fails to mention her dishwater-coloured or grey hair, skin like sunburnt beef jerky and her overall demeanour as a dilapidated shell. Even the relatively progressive Guardian described her as such: ‘hellishly mottled, perma-dirtied skin and ravine-deep eyebags, under a mangy, unconditioned bison pelt of a wig’.
Clearly, reviewers are not ready for Nicole Kidman to look like a mere mortal.
But let’s take a step back here. Because Kidman does not look like dried beef jerky; she does not have a ruined face. Rather, she looks like a woman who has aged normally, in a normal community, without the desire for or requirement of facial enhancers – whether those be permanent, like Botox or surgery, or daily, like makeup. Normal women have lines, eye bags and grey streaks. Normal men, too, come to think of it. Stress and trauma can add to these outward signifiers, but, at the end of the day, they are just a sign that we have lived.
With this in mind, is it any wonder that women are afraid of ageing when a balding reviewer at their favourite newspaper can dismiss female ageing so succinctly? In this film, Kidman may not look like the red carpet glamazon we’re used to; she may not resemble Satine in Moulin Rouge, beautiful even in the throes of consumption. And I may be making these assessments based only on photos of the film, not having seen the film itself. But this is not about the film: it is about the way that we, as a people, perceive female ageing.
I write this as I am contemplating making a few changes to my own appearance, in the hopes that a new hair colour will help me get some metaphorical bounce back, or that a new foundation will make me look more glowy. It is also as I’m facing my own mortality, with a scary screening lined up for tomorrow morning. Paradoxically, I hope that I get to live to be old and yet, in this moment, I want to look youthful.