Beauty (2011)

18 Aug

skoonheidSouth Africa

3.5*
Director:
Oliver Hermanus

Screenwriter:
Oliver Hermanus

Director of Photography:
Jamie Ramsay

Running time: 95 minutes

Original title: Skoonheid

There is no question that the man at the centre of Oliver Hermanus’s Afrikaans-language Beauty is deserving of the title every bit as much as the director’s previous, début feature, the stunningly executed Shirley Adamswas about its title character. His name is Christian Roodt, and he is a charming law student whose enigmatic aura intensifies as we realise he has a calmness about him that belies his age and his boyish good looks. It is a persona that sets others at ease and unfortunately allows some people to take advantage of his affability.

One man who sees Christian and cannot get him out of his head is François van Heerden, a friend of Roodt’s parents, who first sets eyes on the young man at his own daughter’s wedding. But even though the title refers to Christian, Hermanus gently nudges us, from the very first moment, to take position next to François, whose gaze the camera shares with us in the opening take.

This particular take – long and produced via a slow zoom in – is a master stroke, as it not only sets up the extended takes that mottle the film’s visual landscape but also gorgeously encapsulates both the distance and the longing of the main character that will inform our understanding of the rest of the story. Unfortunately, the editing spells out whom this perspective belongs to before delivering the gut punch of having the object of affection unexpectedly look straight into the camera and thus catching François (and us, already) in flagrante delicto.

The film creates some of its tension by deploying moments of lingering silence, and lead actor Deon Lotz is excellent at conveying the frustration and the inhibition of a middle-aged, homophobic man who is married to a woman but engages in sex with other men on what we assume is a regular basis (the farm orgies in which he participates is depicted as emotionless and decidedly ugly). This father of two daughters, who lives in the South African heartland capital of Bloemfontein, likes to drink beer and watch rugby, represses his secret until there is no more space and it ruptures his bubble of existence.

But exactly when there ought to be tension, there is none, as happens in the third act when an inebriated François, sitting opposite Christian at an empty diner, cannot stop babbling. We learn nothing, we feel little for him, and we end up feeling sorry for the expressionless, passive Christian for having to listen to this man. And yet, this scene immediately follows a tour de force tracking shot inside a night club that shows us how ill at ease François is with the world of gay men who have accepted their own sexual orientations.

Visually, Beauty is unimpeachable (although the shots themselves may be questionable, as I explain below), and director of photography Jamie Ramsay deserves much acclaim for his stunning, crisp compositions. The intention behind the film is equally noteworthy, as the story of a man whose secret of homosexual attraction ultimately almost destroys him is one that is absolutely necessary for a generation growing up on a staple of mostly uncritically positive depictions of gay characters and lives.

It is not an easy film to watch, as Hermanus’s view of humanity (and particularly of his main character) is unflinchingly pessimistic, and François does not get a moment to relax and be happy. He is always either delusional or suffering because of his desire to get closer to Christian. He doesn’t know what he wants exactly, but he finds himself drawn like a moth to a flame. A comparison to Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, or The Searchers’s Ethan Edwards, would not be entirely inappropriate, as the obsession of saving someone who does not wish or need to be saved is central to understanding the character here.

Another reason why Beauty is a difficult experience is because of its contemplative pace, which is not always useful. While the few long takes that project François’s point of view have a clear purpose, others are used less sparingly and are more taxing for the viewer. For example, why do we have to be subjected to a static shot of more than 15 seconds of a dim kitchen, shown in the early morning hours, before a character arrives to do something as captivating as… buttoning his shirt?

Hermanus’s plan to have the viewer slide in and out of François’s position is executed a bit ham-handedly, as Christian sometimes looks straight into the camera (which happens briefly in the opening scene, and at least once more later in the film), but he also looks just past the frame, and at the end he is replaced by another character who looks straight at us/François. This mishmash signals confusion on the part of the director, who nonetheless handles his material very assuredly, like an illusionist whose tricks barely engage but still intrigue us because we cannot discern exactly how he performs them so seamlessly, fooling us every time.

In this tragic tale of a man whose unrequited lust leads him to revert to the most primitive of behaviors – fitting the stereotype of the macho guy taking, nay violently grabbing, what he wants with utter disregard for the other party – we are urged to share his point of view but there is little for us to empathize with. The mood is sombre throughout, and Hermanus’s pitch-black vision of his protagonist’s existence never draws us in through the participatory experiences that small moments of happiness would have brought.

Not a thriller and not really a character study, Beauty’s redeeming characteristic is its director’s firm hand, but a collection of technically flawless pieces does not a great film make. Slow cinema, which this film at times intends to emulate, is the domain of poets whose messages are related as visionary dreams. Beauty, by contrast, tells a story that ought to be told in the most immediate manner possible, because there is so little to chew on here.

This is a beautiful film that sometimes carefully considers and depicts the life of a man whose secret is slowly devouring him, but the story’s loose ends and the director’s persistent refusal to obfuscate instead of answering our questions cannot hide the fact that there is less going on here than there ought to be.

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