Winner of the Queer Palm at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, South African director Oliver Hermanus’ sophomore feature Beauty (Skoonheid, 2011) is a devastatingly powerful story of obsession and sexual denial, which in itself acts as a powerful allegory for his country’s continued transition from a nation of archaic beliefs and traditions to a more open and accepting culture.
François (Deon Lotz) is a devoted husband and father living the suburban dream thanks to his successful Timber company. However, despite this seemingly serene existence he struggles with an internal battle against his repressed homosexual desires. So far, François has managed to keep his sexuality hidden through the support of a weekly group consisting of other married men in similar situations. Despite engaging in all-male orgies together, they detest the thought of any ‘faggots’ joining their exclusive ‘married men only’ group. However, Francois’ restrain is put to the test when he meets Christian (Charlie Keegan), the handsome son of a long-lost friend. Christian is too much for Francois to ignore – leading to him becoming dangerously obsessed with this engaging young man, and in turn threatening to tear apart the delicate family dynamic he’s carefully fabricated.
Beauty is a skilfully-made romantic tragedy which weighs far more heavily towards the darker side-effects of physical attraction than it does towards the comfortable love stories we’re so often presented with. Indeed, Hermanus’ second feature is an incredibly bold statement, constantly challenging its viewers with its deeply claustrophobic action and graphic scenes of sex and violence. This gritty exterior is achieved thanks to a truly powerhouse performance by Lotz, whose towering physical presence is only outshone by his ability to constantly seem like a man caught between two opposing worlds.
Unafraid to approach the social taboos of its incredibly conservative setting and by utilising homosexuality to convey South Africa’s difficulty in accepting the more liberal views of its younger generation, Beauty is a remarkably successful film. However, behind its brave exterior, there’s little left to entertain except a self-destructive journey of a deeply detestable man caught between old traditions and his natural bodily urges.
Constantly walking the fine line between essential arthouse cinema and dramatic social commentary, Hermanus’ Beauty remains a difficult film to celebrate or indeed criticise. On the one hand, it flawlessly portrays its message in an unforgettably powerful way (one scene in particular will nestle itself in the recesses of your subconscious), yet it remains little more than a snapshot of a country in a state of a much need transition away from its bleak history of human rights and equality infringements.