Beauty (aka Skoonheid) is the sophomore feature film from director Oliver Hermanus, a story of repression, jealousy, obsession and un-requited love. Both visually and thematically this is a dark movie with frequently starkly contrasted scenes framing the exploration of main character François, played by Deon Lotz, and his carefully constructed life of self-loathing.
Based in Bloemfontein, South Africa, François is a respected local business man, husband, and father who struggles with his repressed sexuality through a controlled system for meeting and engaging in sex acts with a group of similarly minded men – the rules are “no fags and no coloureds”. A stark portrayal of homophobia, racism, and violence this movie brashly deals with difficult subjects and the dislocated identity associated with living a lie. Unable to reconcile his desires with his reality François is always the voyeur and we frequently see from his eyes as his covetous observations of men betray his true nature. The opening sequence is a long pan and slow zoomed shot of a wedding party that is eventually revealed to be the beginning of his obsession with Christian, the son of an old friend.
A sense of isolation from the disparate aspects of François’ personality is evident in the filming style, often distanced implying François’ own detachment from his life; the tension of his dual nature manifesting in aggression towards his family, particularly his daughter. Chiaroscuro lighting is frequent throughout adding to a sense of tension whilst also mirroring the blunt contrasts of François’ character. Prevalent also is the contrast of old and new, at the age of 45 François is a product of furiously conservative beliefs caught between different governments with the oppressive prejudice of Afrikaner minority rule overthrown in favour of a more equal system.
With great direction, concise and well considered in its framing, Beauty features recurring scenes of voyeuristic tension as we are pulled into François’ self-delusions. Christian is a catalyst for obsession, representing a ‘beauty’ that François wants to be and wants to have whilst simultaneously highlighting everything that he hates about himself. Inciting a change to his previously established routine, his newfound fixation consumes him, leading to increasingly more irrational acts; following Christian, turning up in Cape Town where he lives, having him rescue him from a bar, and ultimately full moral collapse. The tension eventually erupts as his desires and violent repression manifest in a brutal and punishing hotel scene wherein the otherwise sparse soundtrack (dialogue/background rather than score) is savagely unavoidable and painfully visceral. Beauty is not easy watching, but it is compelling.
A complex portrayal of bottled up desire, Beauty is a haunting picture of a man whose systems of restraint collapse under the weight of infatuation. Ambiguous in its conclusion we are left feeling almost as desolate as François; the fault of the movie may be in its lack of resolution, or it’s unabashed refusal to impart any suggestion of a solution to the problems it raises. The film does succeed at being an ugly portrait of social and psychological anxiety, astutely written and skilfully acted.
8 out of 10
Beauty is released in theatres April 20.
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