Synopsis: Francois (Deon Lotz), father of two daughters and a devoted husband, lives a skillfully controlled life, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. 23-year-old Christian (Charlie Keegan) is the son of a long lost friend. Francois is so disarmed by the young man that it instantly ignites within him an all consuming infatuation and misplaced lust. Despite his careful concealed disgust for himself, Francois pours out the lost emotions he has despised all his life in what becomes a desperate attempt at taking from the world that which he has always secretly wanted: happiness.
A confronting tale of an angry, repressed white male in modern South Africa.
Francois is a complex, conflicted character, perhaps a throwback to the angry, old white men of the ‘old’ South Africa, whose journey makes for reasonably interesting if occasionally confronting viewing.
BRISBANE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Francois van Heerden, the middle-aged protagonist of South African writer-director Oliver Hermanus’ slow-burning drama Beauty, isn’t an easy man to like or even understand.
He’s racist, dismissing a section of society as “scum”, insensitive and off-handed with his wife and impatient with their daughter. He’s gay but hasn’t come out of the closet and complications arise after he develops an unhealthy obsession with a handsome, much younger man, the son of an old friend, who calls him “uncle”.
Superbly played by Deon Lotz, Francois is a complex, conflicted character, perhaps a throwback to the angry, old white men of the ‘old’ South Africa, whose journey makes for reasonably interesting if occasionally confronting viewing.
A prosperous timber merchant, Francois lives in Bloemfontein in the country’s Afrikaaner heartland with his wife Elena (Michelle Scott), to whom he shows little or no affection, and their daughter Anika (Roeline Daneel).
He gets his kicks sexually by attending orgies with a group of beer-swilling male acquaintances while a porno video plays on TV, but he insists “we are not faggots”. Unsurprisingly, “coloured” people are banned from these gatherings.
In conversation with Elena, he refers to Anika as a “hopeless” young woman who “doesn’t know her place” and has no serious plans in life. Elena meekly agrees, tired, one senses, of arguing with her truculent husband.
Hermanus first shows Francois’ fascination with Christian (Charlie Keegan), a law student who occasionally works as a model in TV commercials, at the reception following the wedding of his other daughter Linda.
Shortly afterwards Francois goes to Cape Town, where Christian lives, on the pretext of work. He stalks the younger man at university and later at a beach, his look of longing bespeaking a desire for youth, beauty and perhaps the physical intimacy that’s long vanished in his marriage.
Repressed feelings suddenly boil over into white-hot anger as Francois rings the police to report his car is stolen after Anika had borrowed it without permission, and then calls his wife.
The pacing is languid in the first hour or so as Hermanus establishes his characters, creates a mood of unease and gradually builds tension until there’s an explosion of emotional and physical violence.
Oddly, Hermanus elects not to show the repercussions, surely a missed opportunity if not a cop-out.
Lotz plays the role with a quiet intensity, a brave performance as a deeply flawed character whose actions will be disquieting for many people. Keegan, in his movie debut, is subtly effective as the urbane Christian.
Beauty premiered at the Un Certain Regard sidebar of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the second annual Queer Palm for the best film dealing with gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender issues.
Accepting the award, Hermanus said, “We want to show it in South Africa but we know it will be a challenging film for the audience because it deals with someone who refuses to accept his sexuality which is, I think, happening in all countries in the world, people refuse to accept who they are.”
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