Skoonheid (Beauty) by Oliver Hermanus Not for the fainthearted
Some claim that South African director Oliver Hermanus's second feature, Skoonheid (Beauty), is not a gay film, while others (like they jury in Cannes awarding the film the Queer Palm) do. Unwilling to assign a sexual orientation to this masterpiece, I'd simply label it an amazingly intricate study of a man's journey into the core of his self-loathing existence, where beauty is unlikely to survive, and violent contradictions are exposed and released.
Francois van Heerden (Deon Lotz), a middle-aged husband and father from Bloemfontein owns a fairly successful construction business but is dissatisfied with a life that contains little affection, intimacy or passion. Like many self-confessed heterosexual men sharing his particular background and complexion, Francois is intolerant in a way typical of those who inhabit a world designed to fit their ideals and needs.
In his numbed world, Francois has found an outlet in a close-knit group of like-minded men. As the premise of the group is fundamentally revolting to all the men involved, the rules of engagement are extremely strict.
That Francois has a past as murky as the green and muddy water in his swimming pool is implied but never confirmed, as is the suggestion that the terrible unfolding of events in the film is not a culmination but the beginning of an increasingly obscure downward spiral. To let us know what will happen afterwards or what happened before is secondary to the questions that Oliver Hermanus invites us to ask ourselves as we are trying to figure Francois out - questions that inevitably will confront us with our own mud and murk.
Isolation and self-control to the point of self-oppression are central themes in Skoonheid (Beauty) as well as Hermanus's debut Shirley Adams. Burdened by secrecy and shame, Francois and Shirley (Denise Newman) are unable to reach out for help, or find other ways to transcend the empty space that surrounds them and threatens to suffocate them.
Oliver Hermanus evokes powerful visceral sensations of isolation and withheld emotion through his unique, careful and rich cinematic language in which nothing speaks louder than the unsaid. In Shirley Adams, long close ups from behind Shirley on the bus or at the breakfast table bring us into the heart of the film and the essence of her lonely and vulnerable existence. In Skoonheid (Beauty) the most powerful moments are the intimate ones observed from a distance when we, in the company of our protagonist, contemplate a remote world that we can only access through lip-reading or Francois's brutal force and scheming ways. Moments, like the one shared between his daughter Anika (Roeline Daneel) and the object of Francois's obsession Christian (Charlie Keegan), on a beach, or by two lovers in a coffee shop. During such lingering passages, Hermanus creates room for his stories to play out on levels that are unique for each audience member as we add intention and meaning, guided by our own experiences and instincts. Hermanus sends no messages and writes no pamphlets. He merely provides an opportunity to meditate on what is unfolding on the screen and - if we dare - in our minds.
Oliver Hermanus belongs to a precious breed of filmmakers; one that believes in his ability to communicate in an elaborate and personal style, and who entrusts his complex stories to an audience whose ability to engage he doesn't doubt. Delicately and skillfully, he takes us through joy, grief and violence, without prescribing what we should think or feel. Challenging us not to just judge, he guides us gently, slowly and silently, through the ordinary, the abnormal, the unbearable, and the unimaginable, offering no solution and no justice on the way. It's the journey that counts, not the end destination, and while giving us a map, and general directions, he respectfully refrains from explaining how the map should be read or the directions understood.
Most will tell you that Skoonheid isn't a film for the fainthearted. I'd agree. Most films that stay with me for days, week, months and years aren't. As squeamish as I might be, I still welcome the opportunity to have my delicate sensitivities upset and to explore my reactions and myself in new and creative ways. If I'm lucky I'll learn something and might even become less judgmental - at least for a while. And if not, at least I'll know I tried.