Skoonheid

What it's about:

The ordered life of a middle-aged Afrikaans family man from Bloemfontein starts to unravel when he becomes obsessed with the student son of a family friend.

What we thought:

That premise doesn’t come close to telling the story of what Skoonheid (the Afrikaans word for 'beauty') is really about. A simple, seemingly romantic idea about beauty, desire and possession is twisted into a frightening nightmare in the hands of Oliver Hermanus, the young South African director whose debut feature Shirley Adams we named one of the best films of 2010.

Skoonheid is far removed from Shirley Adams, which took place on the Cape Flats and centred on a destitute Mitchells Plain mother’s struggles to care for her quadriplegic son. There’s something far more careful and considered about Skoonheid, and it’s evident in every frame, in the weariness and stoicism of its lead character Froncois van Heerden (played by Deon Lotz).

The movie opens with a beautiful tracking shot of a wedding reception, where Francois, the father of the bride, zooms in on the strapping young man Christian (Charlie Keegan) who seems to light up the room with his easy charm and obvious good looks. Francois’ ravenous gaze is as captivated as the viewer’s – Christian, the law student/part-time model son of Francois’ old buddy, is a beautiful young man.

Is this just a fleeting infatuation that will see Francois seek the attentions of someone younger, escape the drudgery of his loveless marriage and somehow be reinvigorated by the promise of youth? That may have been how things would have turned out in the hands of a less daring director, but Hermanus pushes the boundaries of desire and creates a protagonist who is selfish, possibly incapable of love and all the more fearsome for it. There are dark, dangerous secrets that he holds and they are so closely guarded, the lengthy, probing shots of Francois face barely come close to prying them free.

As a character study, Skoonheid dabbles in deep-seated repressions that manifest themselves in disturbing ways. We see Francois arrive at a remote smallholding where he meets a few other men. They exchange awkward pleasantries over a beer. Another man arrives with a Coloured youngster wearing a tight T-shirt. There is a moment of tension, an argument breaks out, the owner of the house tells the man that "Coloureds aren’t allowed", the rest of the group insist they aren’t "moffies". What follows puts that into question but is indicative of the disassociation that characterises Francois, for whom casual homosexual sex is just another desire that the life he has created for himself doesn’t allow for. A man with so many secrets is a ticking time bomb.

When Francois does explode it’s at the end a lonely night in Cape Town, where he has exiled himself to be closer to the object of his obsession. It comes after the audience has already taken a curious journey trying to come to terms with the character – a man who is so easy to pity, even sympathise with, before those altruistic feelings quickly turn to disgust and loathing. It’s an uneasy shift to make and Lotz’s commanding performance is fully committed, his facial expressions hardly registering the erupting rage and disillusion that’s just there, broiling beneath the surface. Only Hermanus, who also wrote the film, won’t let us in on it, choosing instead to take Francois and Christian down a shockingly violent path that feels like a kick to the gut.

While Skoonheid is a technically more assured film than Shirley Adams, it is a much tougher film to become invested in, even love. The tone is bleak and distant throughout, the dialogue sparse, and the sluggish pace languishing in mundane moments that don’t really give anything away. This is a film that asks a lot of its audience, and if the buy-in isn’t there from the start, it will be especially hard to stay the course. This is not the typical arthouse fare we get to see in South Africa. The fact that it is the first Afrikaans film to screen at the Cannes film festival this year and won the Queer Palm award will garner it the type of promotion other SA productions couldn’t even afford.

Those looking to relate in some way to Francois’ dilemma through some working knowledge of other movies to have dealt with repressed homosexuality (Brokeback Mountain, American Beauty) will find themselves at a loss. Hermanus has once again taken his singular style to a familiar theme and made something utterly unique.

How South African audiences will react to this dense tale will provide some interesting insight into the type of market that exists, and could possibly grow, for a film like Skoonheid.