|Film review: Beauty (Skoonheid)|
|Written by Ivan Radford|
|Tuesday, 17 April 2012 16:41|
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Beauty is not a pretty film. While British charmer Weekend won hearts for Peccadillo Pictures last year with its warming tale of frank romance, the distributor’s latest has something darker in mind. Not just murky or dimly lit. This is a nasty story, full of determined, barely restrained desire. It’s a film about repression. And obsession. Obspression.
It begins like Hannah and Her Sisters’ disturbing younger brother: We glide round a crowded wedding reception quietly skulking between the guests until finally, our gaze rests on a young lawyer, Christian (Keegan). This is what Francois (Lontz) is looking at. He doesn’t stop looking for the next 100 minutes.
"I have my own beliefs. My own way of doing things. I can show you how to keep it all together,” proposes Francois to the young man, completely besotted. Things are never said more explicitly than that in South Africa’s closeted middle-class society. A studied, intense performer, Francois sweats more than he talks. And his sweat speaks buckets.
Outwardly, he’s a polite and upright figure. He has a family, he has a business, he says thank you a lot – which, in Afrikaans, sounds wonderfully like “donkey”. But the quiet, methodical man is always on edge. You can tell by the way he looks around him: he has two modes, staring and not staring. Needless to say, there’s a lot of staring. Sometimes, he stares over the top of hedges.
Between the gradually escalating bouts of stalking, Francois’ softly spoken breakdown becomes rather engrossing. Going through the motions of his steady, loveless marriage, Francois travels back and forth to work at his lumber factory. There, director Oliver Hermanus turns his long, static shots to linger on smooth shafts of wood fed into machinery. They emerge the other side, blitzed into tiny fragments.
Admittedly, not a lot happens plot-wise, particularly in the muddled second act, but what Beauty does so well is position its audience (one wonders how it was received in its home country). There’s no engaging relationship to root for, but we are made to share Francois’ perspective. We hear his end of a phone call. We ignore his housewife (a believably tired Michelle Scott). We look at Charlie Keegan’s smiling, energetic object – and resent him for being desirable.
And yet we remain remote, detached from Francois’ effed-up head. Sudden bursts of graphic male orgies jolt the steady frame, a shocking glimpse of the urges waiting to explode from Lontz’s sweaty landmine. His impulses climax in a violent scene that quickly goes from embarrassing to horrific to sadly pathetic – this is, naturally, not spoken about for the rest of the film.
Then the script resumes its respectable, leisurely front, gently drifting to an enigmatic finish. The pace may be sluggish, but Skoonheid is a surprising, slow descent down one man’s spiral of obspression. Part Shame, part Lolita, it’s more beast than Beauty.