Secrets, longings and lies taint Hermanus’ Beauty
by Fabien Lemercier
17/05/2011 - South African director Oliver Hermanus has got off to an excellent start on the Croisette with Beauty [trailer] (Skoonheid), a powerful account of homosexuality, executive produced by French outfit Equation.
Screening today in the Un Certain Regard section of the 64th Cannes Film Festival, the second film by the young director discovered at Locarno 2009 with Shirley Adams is a highly subtle piece. Impressive directing and the development of the film’s intrigue guarantee the director a position of privilege at future Cannes festivals.
Centred on a married, 40-something manager and father of two grown children, one of whom gets married in the opening scene, Francois van Herdeen (Deon Lotz, who carries the entire film on his solid shoulders) seems to lead a relatively normal life. But the audience soon discovers his secret: in a remote house, he regularly meets a group of men like himself – white, virile, and homosexual – to satisfy bestial urges (TV porn films and all kinds of sex) which the director has the good taste not to dwell upon.
Leading a traditional family life, aside from the fact that he and his wife share no physical contact, François is hiding another secret, which turns into an obsession: he feels sexually attracted to his nephew, the handsome and complex Christian (Charlie Keegan). But the young student lives far away, in Cape Town, and seems more interested in Francois’ eldest daughter. François uses ploys to get close to his target, but nothing goes to plan.
The rich screenplay, written by Hermanus with his French producer Didier Costet, reserves a string of surprises and a build-up of tension. The intrigue also superbly exploits what the protagonists know or do not know. Did something happen between Francois and Christian? What does Christian know or suspect about his uncle’s secret sexual identity? And to what point is Christian’s wife ignorant of her husband’s secret urges and the source of his stress (we know from the beginning that he is not supposed to drink)?
Building up the suspense to a brutal and arresting climax, Beauty is also the portrait of a man suffering from inner demons, who is followed closely by the camera from the first to the last scene. The burden of a life controlled by lies eventually leads to violent psychological and physical pressure that has to find an explosive outlet, as a metaphor for South African society. The main character who spies his object of desire like prey and overturns all obstacles to get what he wants is also the victim of amorous feelings, of the irresistible attraction that youth and beauty exert on him.
Masterfully filmed, for the most part magnificent long shots, and starkly dissected, Beauty reveals, among its many cinematic qualities, a highly developed art of suggestion through the visual and dialogue, which often have a double meaning and pre-empt the action. Almost flawless, the film may have deserved a Competition spot this year, but its success in Certain Regard augers well for the director’s future.
(Translated from French)