Some linguistic determinism is at work in Oliver Hermanus’ The Endless River (2015), a leaden-paced South African melodrama about the repercussions of a horrific crime. Percy (Clayton Evertson) has just been released from prison after serving four years for armed robbery. He is met by his loyal wife Tiny (Crystal-Donna Roberts), a waitress at a gas station diner. They live with her fiery Aunt Mona (Denise Newman) who is frankly sceptical of Percy’s stated intention to reform and become a good husband. Meanwhile, Gilles (Claire Denis regular Nicolas Duvauchelle), a Frenchman arrived in South Africa with his young family, strikes up a friendship with Tiny at the restaurant where he goes to eat.
At home with his children and wife, there is an air of tension at the dinner table, and in the light of this, it is apparent that the flirting with Tiny is indicative of some dissatisfaction at home. He leaves the dinner table and the house in a huff and while he is away the house is invaded by three masked men, who rape and murder the wife and kill the children. Gilles is devastated, a hollowed out man full of nothing but rage and grief, laced fatally with guilt. His contempt for the local police and his helplessness leads police chief Groenewald (Darren Kelfkens) to give him the name of a man recently released from prison who he thinks a likely suspect in the crime: Percy. The plot is set up for a tragedy of errors, love born in grief, guilt and suffering.
So what goes wrong? Following a stylishly retro titles sequence, The Endless River is divided into three chapters each named after a one of the three lead characters. Intertitles have become as common as unsimulated sex scenes were a couple of years ago. They’re the new stylish tic, but here they’re random as the chapters don’t offer a different perspective or even feature more of that character’s story. Although Chris Lotz’s lush cinematography captures all the beauties of the rural South African setting – the title is a reference to the the town of Riviersonderend – this lushness becomes tastelessly inappropriate when the scene of the home invasion and rape is played out in slow motion with Braam du Toit’s symphonic score playing over the ‘action’. Apparently, we need to see the rape but not the murder of the children which is heavily implied. Almost everything that happens in the aftermath is unavoidably emotive but it soon becomes also incredible. That a police officer would give a grieving husband an incitement to murder beggars belief and Gilles weeps at us but his resort to drink looks generic rather than real.
Gilles’ relationship to Tiny lacks any spark or eroticism. There’s no need or hunger in the characters and no reason for them to be together except that the script says so. And the script also calls for an interminable number of scenes that take place with characters sitting at tables, eating – restaurants, cafés, dining rooms. A rape has been used before as an entry point into post-apartheid South Africa. J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace created a disturbing and thoughtful vision of a similar isolated farm and issues of guilt and justice. However, for Hermanus the rape is merely an inciting incident to move his characters. Gilles weeps at us for some time, but we never get an insight into his suffering and all the film says about South Africa in general is that it is a crime-ridden country with beautiful landscapes. This is a shame because The Endless River is technically accomplished, but by the time we reach the sea any interest in the story has long since drifted off.
The 72nd Venice Film Festival takes place from 2-12 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.