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SKOONHEID (BEAUTY) - 21/8/2012 4:40:23 PM   
Jon Geoffrey

 

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Joined: 21/8/2012
The South African film Skoonheid (Beauty) is one of the most exciting and enraging pictures of the year go and see it before reading this. It is a film charged with rage; every frame is infused with the feelings of hopelessness, anger and alienation that afflicted the white Afrikaner minority after the displacement of the long-standing policy of apartheid in 1990. Francois van Heerdon (Deon Lotz), burly and middle-aged, is firmly of the old guard. He is brutish and stolid, the embodiment of Afrikaans manhood. His home, his wood mill, the social circles in which he moves all are hermetically sealed off, artificial edifices of wealth and whiteness. Sneering at a black patron who approaches him in a bar, Francois behaves as if he were still part of the ruling class. And yet his world has changed, and not subtly: post-apartheid South Africa has irrevocably changed and Francois has lost a sense of his place in it. His rage, hinted at darkly in the early scenes, flickers, sputters, and, when it can be contained no longer, explodes in shocking form. Mostly, though, it simmers behind Francois's flat and impassive features. Its cause, we soon discover, comes (at least in part) from the clean divide in Francois's life the title is an allusion to this, since skoonheid actually denotes a kind of aestheticised cleanness (as opposed to beauty itself). There is the family man, married with three lovely daughters; and then there is the closeted man that travels to a country retreat to engage in drunken orgies with other ageing Afrikaners (a horror to watch). The delicate balance of this double life is thrown into disarray when, at the reception of his daughter's wedding, he is drawn to Christian (Charlie Keegan), a handsome young law student. Francois falls instantly in love, and embarks on a dogged pursuit of the beautiful boy that leads him all the way to Cape Town.

As he descends into a series of increasingly bitter humiliations, Francois's behaviour becomes unpredictable and bizarre. One is reminded of another work about that dealt with the loss of dignity Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (intentionally, obviously). But Francois is no Aschenbach, and his pursuit is triggered not by a harmonious contemplation of beauty but by grim sexual obsession. Francois makes a few sad attempts to woo his overgrown Tadzio, furtively buying Christian an IPod; later, he drinks alone in a gay club looks like something out of Dante's Inferno, merely on the off chance that the boy will show up. As the object of desire, Christian wears so many different masks, and all of them are so attractive, that by the time they all fall away, it is a little startling to see the calculating self-interest underneath, the shiftlessness and the boredom. By then, however, it hardly matters he is so ravishingly photographed, his face often blown up to a huge semaphore, that his beauty is all we are left with, the flash of dark eyes and clean white teeth. The camera looks as lovingly upon Christian as Francois does: his body glowing in the summer sun at Clifton Beach, his hard, pretty features moulded like marble in the shadowy Greenpoint diner. He speaks rarely, and remains unknowable. Finally, and shatteringly, he becomes the focus of Francois' lustful and furious attentions.

This scene is one of the most confronting depictions of rape ever committed to the screen savage, explicit and utterly real. It is neither pointlessly drawn out, as was Monica Belluci's nine-minute ordeal in Irreversible, nor languorous and fetishised, like poor Susan George in Straw Dogs. It is unbearable to watch, and problematic in its intentions. As the film has followed Francois in every scene prior to this, it is empathic we understand Francois' need to destroy his love object so it can cease to control him. Empathy, in this instance, is dangerous: accessing his anger and frustration lessens the impact of the crime, as we see it, as it were, through Francois' eyes. It is a mysterious scene, one that appears violently from nowhere, and vanishes almost as quickly there is noticeable puzzlement in the confused jumble of what follows after.

At the end, it is the image of Francois we are left with deflated and saddened and alone as he looks on at the gay life that he might have lived. He does belong to a group to be pitied: the 1994 Interim Constitution extended anti-discrimination protection to the LGBT community (though sodomy remained criminalised until 1998), and many, many gay men of his age were able live their lives openly, without the fear of persecution, for the first time. But equal numbers did not the dance of deception was too strongly ingrained, the structures of marriage and family had been erected with foundations too deep to be levelled. A life half lived, a life of endless, unsatisfying frustrations men in Francois' position are to be pitied, to be sure, but not the man himself. I resented Hermanus's storytelling manipulations: it is ludicrous to ask us to sympathise with a man, and mourn the life he might have lived, moments after he has committed an act of horrible violation. Before, he is merely pathetic, a strange and sad figure; after, he is a criminal who no longer any claim to our soft-hearted feelings. Christian never reappears at all and yet it was him I really cared about. Did he recover? Did he go to the police? Will he blackmail Francois? Hermanus could care less, and the vagueness of the ending gives it a feeling of stuntedness and wrong-headedness.

By Jon Geoffrey




< Message edited by elab49 -- 21/8/2012 4:41:54 PM >


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