Dramas that concern middle-aged male ennui have always been a common feature in cinema, particularly in the last few years. Usually they just follow some sort of mid-life crisis, where the principal character is ridiculed for odd behaviour, or merely searching for something which is already present in his life. However, South African film Beauty (otherwise known as Skoonheid) is something quite different, portraying an altogether more affecting, and even sinister, effect of later in life frustrations.
The Oscar-nominated film follows the life of Francois van Heerden (Deon Lotz), a forty-something family man who has found himself in a life without purpose. His days are filled with tedious office work at a lumber mill, and his nights with meaningless pillow conversation with his wife, who seems distant from her husband. However, Francoise has a secret way to express himself; he actively participates in homosexual activity with men of a similar age.
Homosexuals have a long history of victimisation in South Africa, even to this day, a fact that is even present in Francois’ own thinking, as he seems slightly homophobic himself, being sure to say that he is not a ‘faggot’. This apparent disgust for his own baser instincts is an important symbol of Francois’ full character, one of self-loathing solitude.
This aspect of him is also further evidence of not only his secretive nature, but also how far removed from his familial ties he is. It also leads to the central narrative of the film: Francois’ dangerous obsession with a young family member, Christian (Charlie Keegan).
The film opens with Francois watching Christian across a crowded room at a wedding reception. This opening is not only key to introducing Francois’ voyeuristic tendencies, but is also an example of the director’s wonderful style throughout the film. The slow moving camerawork allows the narrative to flow round the camera unbidden, with the use of long takes (a personal favorite technique) allowing the action to unfold naturally, whilst also exuding the required intensity for the film’s subject.
These takes often focus on Francois’ dull and mundane life, as he is often seen for prolonged periods of time either watching or waiting for something to happen to his own mediocrity. The lengthy shots manage to show this in an effective and, at times, uncomfortable way (a fact that is to director Oliver Hermanus’ credit).
The plot develops as Francois’ obsession with Christian grows more powerful, ensuring he makes excuses to get away to Cape Town where the subject of his affections lives. Here, he watches Christian from afar, keeping his distant but always present. Lotz’s performance as Francois toes the line between loving and predatory, with every crease on his face both emoting and concealing a range of feelings. Truly, the performance is one of high quality, making the more distressing scenes even more so.
Unfortunately, Beauty is not without its flaws. Whilst the use of Afrikaans is a good way of placing the film within a specific culture, and Francois’ use of it acting as a way to settle himself in a traditional, more old-fashioned stance, its mixture with strongly accented English makes for difficult listening when switching between subtitled dialogue and English. Whilst this mix becomes less of an issue as the film progresses, to an international market, it can be slightly confusing to the ear.
The film also suffers from a lack of narrative logic as it progresses. The climax to Francois’ obsession with Christian, whilst powerful, lacks any consequence. It merely fades away with the rest of the film’s action, and so, despite serving to further emphasise the protagonist’s true colours so to speak, it really seems to lack any of the potential payoff that it promises. Of course, it also shows a sense of never-ending monotony to Francois’ life, but considering his actions, the lack of consequence leaves a sour taste.
It also means that the ending is really quite unfulfilling. Despite a truly emotional moment as Francois seems to come to terms with how happiness will always elude him, Beauty ends without ever seeming to finish portraying its message.
Despite this, it is still a wonderfully crafted, and well-acted piece. Hermanus’ style of long takes means that nothing seems rushed, and that the action simply unfolds before you. The scenery is beautifully shot, as are the dramatic scenes that make up the film’s narrative. Lotz provides a fantastically absorbing performance, but is sadly let down by the film’s lack of a strong through line to take it right to the end.