Skoonheid/Beauty (2011)


Director: Oliver Hermanus. Moonlighting Films.


Producer: Didier Costet. Writer: Oliver Hermanus. Camera: Jamie Ramsay. Music: Ben Ludik. Sets: Johan Oosthuizen.

Deon Lotz, Charlie Keegan, Michelle Scott, Roeline Daneel, Sue Diepeveen, Albert Maritz.


Francois (Lotz) owns a sucessful lumberyard and enjoys all the trappings of a middle-class life: a demanding, trophy wife (Scott), a big, mouldering house and the laborious 9-5 grind. That is until he sees Christian (Keegan), the handsome, charming, grown-up son of a former Army pal. Jolted out of his slumber by Christian’s stunning beauty, but repulsed by his own homosexuality, he sets about becoming closer to the young man, without revealing his true feelings.


The literal translation given here of the Afrikaans term Skoonheidt (pronounced Skwin-high) lends an inaccurate and misleading explanation of our lead character’s motivations. Another, fuller interpretation of the word could be that it means a ‘pure’ or ‘clean’; a subtle inflection that should add oodles more layers of emotional complexity to Hermanus visually impressive, barren sexual crisis drama. The sparks of chilling inventiveness he produces however helps only to mask the fact that the final result falls short of this.

Full plaudits therefore must go to Lotz who turns in a staggering, multi-faceted performance of tortured, obsessive longing. He’s a modern day Gustav von Aschenbach, the dying composer facing up to his own homosexual feelings in another aching study of the older man falling for a vision of youthful beauty, Visconti’s delicate Death in Venice.

And just as Dirk Bogarde, lingering on the Lido as cholera grips thar titular city, develops a note perfect performance at a distance from the object of his affections, so does Lotz. The deep, penetrating stares from secluded locations, sideways looks stolen when Christian’s attention is elsewhere, sweating and panting as he goes to more humiliating steps to keep him firmly fixed in his gaze. Bogarde might not have stooped to buying ipods and then faking Christian’s girlfriend’s car being stolen, but Lotz likewise becomes more of a revelation as his repressed existence slowly unravels.

From the prolonged, opening shot of Francois staring across a crowded room, his eyes resting on Christian for the first time; Hermanus is in control of a carefully constructed mise en scene of isolated misery.

The amusingly awkward, illicit sex meet for closeted men in the outback makes it clear that Francois is not the only middle aged man in this hetero heartland to have such hidden longings. Immediately afterwards, the shots of vast, isolated fields and empty cars correlate well with the emotional void in these men’s lives.

The physical relief Francois et al feel from this danger sex is hammered home even further by the sterility of their martial beds; Francois’ grasping, vain and silly wife nags him to clean the pool and do something with their huge house, though she too is having an affair in what also looks like a house away from prying eyes. His home is always totally dark; Francois hides in the shadows both in public and in private.

Despite this awesome grasp of the visual side of the film, it still fails to rise to the occasion. It is a shame that Hermanus does not push harder in showing how a glimpse of beauty causes the torpid, ordered life of the older man to crumble in spectacular, tragic fashion (his wife nags, but is everything else really that bad for him)? We have seen this done before and with more devestating effect; Hermanus is unable or perhaps unwilling to fully drag Francois down into the repulsion he feels for himself.

Keegan is a heart-stoppingly attractive counterpoint to the hulking, pale and hairy Lotz. A tanned, buffed gym bunny who continually seems to emerge out of nowhere as if he were an angel stopping off for a few hours whilst his cloud is being serviced in a celestial garage (he even drives to rescue a drunk Francois from a Cape Town gay bar). Contrasted with Francois’ vicious sexuality and, as the title of the film suggests, he is presented as almost virginal, beyond mere human sex. His sweetness is exacerbated by his ambivalent flirtatiousness, naively leading his sexually enraged “Uncle” on to a devastating denouement.

A difficult but rewarding watch.

In English and Afrikaans with subtitles.






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