Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Skoonheid (Beauty)

This article can also be found at The Yorker, here.

I'm all for more queer-themed films. Not just because I'm one of those filthy heathen LGBTQ types, but because there's scope for more stories to be told than common blockbuster archetypes; or failing that, a fresh twist on them.

I assumed Beauty, a South African film by director Oliver Hermanus, would prove to be another Weekend, a low-key hit that tells a story from a queer perspective. I was introduced to the film with the synopsis that the protagonist (François, played by Deon Lotz) was a middle-aged man from a bigoted background, forced to struggle with his own latent homosexuality.

  This led me to take for granted that I was in for an experience where lessons would be learned, hearts may end up being warmed, and regardless of the outcome, it would give the viewer something to think about. Yes, this assumption is a little stale and saccharine; but I feel we're still socially at a stage where a minority-positive message is important and helpful.

Too bad that Beauty ended up as far from that as possible. François has unbridled lust in Christian (Charlie Keegan), the son of a close friend - close enough for them to be in a uncle/nephew relationship; and it's actually a little unclear that this isn't the case. For some reason this swiftly escalates into stalking, and eventually - and I apologize for spoiling the film's climax - rape.

This ungraceful plunge off the moral deep-end isn't done with much character development; at least nothing to make François a character worth following or Christian more complex than a plot device.
Sure, we get multiple scenes of lingering and dialogue-free shots of François going about his business - Hermanus takes the Axiom 'show, don't tell' a little too close to heart, and these moments are meant to give you the chance to read François' expression and ponder about what's on his mind; but they're a total waste - most feel like a tool to pad out the film's 105 minutes, and are dull enough to make the film feel more like 2+ hours.

If, at the end of it all, there was a resolution, or some kind of visible sign that François realises he's a terrible human being, then prepare to throw down your hat in disgust and frustration. After the sexual abuse, Christian vanishes from the narrative, his plot device fulfilled.

The sole redeeming factor of this appalling mess was the script - the characters are bilingual in both English and Afrikaans, and code-switch freely. It's something that I've not seen done in a film before - even ones that have dialogue in multiple languages - and it helps make the conversations feel more legitimate and real.

In fact, realism may have been what Hermanus was going for - there's no doubt that in real life there are mentally disturbed hypocritical bigots, and something like 90% of sexual assaults do go unreported (regardless of gender); but this is not the way to deliver such awful and distressing topics.
If this is ever released on DVD, I hope there's a bonus scene of François being hit by a truck. Then I would hate Beauty marginally less.

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