Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Stars: Deon Lotz, Charlie Keegan
Set in post-apartheid South Africa, Beauty is a powerful, challenging and confronting drama about passion, repression and infatuation. Winner of the Queer Palm award at Cannes, Beauty is a disturbing and provocative examination of one man’s damaging self-hatred, and it draws parallels with the comp lex political situation in South Africa itself, a fractured country still coming to terms with turbulent changes in its social structure.
Francois van Heerden (Deon Lotz) is a respectable, middle-aged businessman in Blomfontein, in South Africa, who is leading a closeted life. While married with two daughters, Francois regularly meets with with a group of like-minded men in a remote farm house for secret purposes. The implicit rules of these meetings though reveal the deep divisions that still exist in contemporary South Africa. But Francois soon becomes obsessed with the handsome young Christian (Charlie Keegan, who has done a lot of television work), the son of a close family friend. His desire has dark and disturbing consequences.
Writer/director Oliver Hermanus and cinematographer Jamie Ramsay use a wonderful visual style – lots of natural lighting, the camera remains steady and characters often walk in or out of the frame, and there are scenes where we see characters talking but cannot hear what they are saying. This is a deliberate approach that makes the audiences voyeurs watching interactions from a distance.
Hermanus seems drawn towards characters on the edge, outcasts who survive on the fringes of society. Francois is leading a double life, and his inability to integrate into a democratic society has parallels to South Africa’s turbulent struggle to adjust to its post-Apartheid period. The central character here is not as likeable or instantly as sympathetic as the protagonist of Hermanus’s last film Shirley Adams.
Lotz brings a quite intensity and subdued anger to his performance as the conflicted Francois, a flawed and complex man who tries to keep his double life a secret but who slowly begins to crack under the stress and pressure of maintaining a lie. This is a largely internal performance, and the camera often focuses on Lotz’s face in close up, which reveals his inner struggle and the darkness beneath the surface. There is a powerful and confronting scene in Francois’ hotel room that will probably shock many in the audience. To Hermanus’s credit though he refused to soften the scene or allow it to be censored.
In his first feature film role Keegan is also very good as the good-looking Christian, the reluctant object of Francois’ obsession. The film’s ending leaves much unresolved, which may frustrate many, but the final shot is also symbolic of a life spiralling out of control. The title is quite ironic as there is a lot of brutality and ugliness in the world explored through Hermanus’ probing lens.