Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Skoonheid" - (Beauty)

So, I have this cousin, who lives in Fish Hoek. He likes to walk on the mountains which surround the village, barefoot. He has a head full of shockingly white hair and a Stalin type moustache on his lip. He is a straight up-and-down kind of guy, in most senses of the word. I was therefore very interested when, casually, he told me about this movie that he had seen recently, “with loads of graphic gay sex in it. I was expecting him to dismiss it – but he didn’t. Far from it! “It was a brilliant movie!” he pronounced.

The movie he was talking about was “Skoonheid” – (translated Beauty), which has been getting some measure of high regard at the recent Cannes festival. It stars Deon Lotz – an actor, I have to admit, I have never heard of - and a range of other people I have never seen before in my life.

What is the movie about? Well, it is about this very ordinary Afrikaner who lives a very ordinary kind of life. Of course, he is gay (though he would not admit that) and fixates on a good looking young man at his daughter’s wedding. He becomes extremely compulsive about this young man. Essentially – that is what the film is about.

Now, you might think that is hardly novel – and indeed it is not. But what is so extraordinary about this film is the intensity of the primary role. The film is layered – repressed Afrikaner males, hypocritical, violent, angry, tending toward psychotic - and all the expected avenues are explored at that level. But there is another level, the ease and unfettered freedom of the beautiful young man – uncluttered with the history of the country. The electrical “charge” in which the younger generation operates, where older men on the prowl are simply invisible. The straightforward unedited, un-nuanced, almost naive business orientation of the new generation – happy to simply use contacts, situations, relationships etc, for whatever scheme they might have in mind.

And yet another level is that of the kind of inner turmoil in which some people still labour – there are frequent references to how little the government does, or cares; how the law enforcement agencies are sadly wanting; how the country is falling to pieces. Yet these remarks are made within a ring of deceit and evil which is carefully hidden from view – but indulged in and continued.

The layers are all there – in the veneer of respectability; in the role of father, husband and provider; in the lostness of someone still essentially damaged by apartheid; in a culture of ipods and trance music; in the hypocrisy of a person living an individual lie, but never hesitating to point to failure and corruption in the state.

The main character, Francois, is plainly a very disturbed individual. He cannot cope with the reality of his sexual orientation, but that does not stop him (and a portly bunch of similar men), gathering on a regular basis at remote farmhouses to have orgies. He starts to spin completely out of control – becoming completely predatory on the one hand and then reacting like a 12 year old, when he discovers his daughter in what seems to be not much more than a casual friendship with the object of his own desire. He stalks his wife and stalks this younger man. He plots in a cringe-making, amateurish way, to engineer a sexual encounter with him.

The result is explosive, extremely violent and utterly awful. The tension gets ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level – and then, one is faced with the mundane once again, with all of the contradictions still intact.

There is no resolution. There is no light, no glimmer of hope. The man continues, corrupt, abusive, self-destructive and unrepentant - dispensing either money or forgiveness to the people who are actually his victims. It is shocking to watch. Particularly if one is, let us say, of a certain age.

The title, “Skoonheid” is an interesting one. It is translated beauty – and the beautiful young man is the obvious object of the older man’s desire. But it can also mean “displaying an excellent character” – and with that in mind, the movie is certainly worth pondering.

Some reviews have criticized the movie for being "plodding". I have to say, I did not feel that. I thought it was brilliantly acted, nuanced and certainly unpredictable. But more than that, it has a gritty realism about it, which kept me wide awake.

Starring: Albert Maritz,Charlie Keegan,Deon Lotz,Michelle Scott,Roeline Daneel,Sue Diepeveen
Director: Oliver Hermanus

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