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by Kavish Chetty / 11.08.2011

How many more mid-life crises must we be lurched through in pursuit of art? This is a graceless and irreverent start to what I think – genuinely – is an understated work of some intrigue, but the charge endures. Sure, middle-age is uniquely positioned for trauma: there is the recharged vigour of youth by which new projects are taken up; but they’re now poisoned with the cloying desperation which comes with the acknowledgement of life’s finitude. Still, it is a thing over-plumbed with directorial interest, and one that appears to demand a kind of adoration simply in its potential. That Skoonheid translates as ‘Beauty’ (and not ‘Cleanliness’ as we might expect; this is not an ode to domestic work) should give us some immediate access into its complex territory. ‘Beauty’, of course, because of American Beauty, another great exploration of middle-agedom’s sighing oddities; but also Skoonheid, in lieu of ‘Afrikaans Beauty’ or ‘South African Beauty’.

But yet the desire and yearning with which Skoonheid aches is something terribly more complicated than simple freedom pangs, even though ‘duty to one’s family’ is duly name-checked. Its subject-matter is François (Deon Lotz), a difficult and pathetic protagonist – and I mean ‘pathetic’ here as in evoking a reluctant pathos, not as some cheap slander – who is possibly homosexual. I say ‘possibly’, because although the film heaves with a certain volume of homosexuality, the true problem here is one of an indeterminate desire: something foreign, dangerous, inapprehensible. His struggle with homosexuality is only ever atmospheric, suggested. François is curiously not arrested by the sort of cognitive dissonance with which we usually meet his archetype: middle-aged man, conservative values, South African, stout physique, traditional. This is the sort of dissonance by which religious men can be gay – engaged in some kind of bizarre arithmetic whereby they subtract the divine injunctions of Leviticus and find themselves in harmony with a god who hates their guts. François encounters this only obliquely – disparaging “those faggots” (or “moffies”) at the dinner table. But where we would expect the film to stage a consistent encounter with this dissonance, how it irrupts itself into a life shot through with contradiction, it instead appears to vanish.

This has something to do with François’s obscure object of desire: his typically attractive law-student nephew, Christian (Charlie Keegan). Here is a quick inroad into discussing the camerawork, as the relationship between François and his object – Christian reveals himself to us only ever as a thing already maddeningly sexualised by François’s lust and gaze – mirrors the formal aspects of the film. The camera stalks, obsesses and stares. The pacing is slumberous, large sections of the film are dialogueless: there is an patience (or otherwise, perhaps a lethargy) here. The narrative is driven forward by François’s stalking of his mark. He is almost impossible to sympathise with, being as he is some kind of prowling pervert with an insistent libido – one which drives him to violence in its quest for satisfaction. The film is slow, sometimes rewardingly, sometimes frustratingly. But perhaps necessarily so, communicating part of the theme: an inarticulate sexuality, and a desire (and its objects) unanchored from our ability to rationalise them.

There is a deliberately critical tone surfacing in this review. But this film does have – amongst its excellent camerawork, polish and refusal to be easily consumed – an admirable assuredness; a confidence in itself, but not the cockiness which is now hallmark of a certain breed of film being produced by youngish, freshly-graduate film-makers. You know the caste of director I’m talking about – thick, plastic-frame glasses with daddy’s bourgeois bank balance at their mercy. Director Oliver Hermanus is trying something real and relevant, and although I don’t think the film can answer to every superlative, it does bear the signs of a working out and working through of a fantastic directorial skill. Which is really longhand for suggesting you keep a scope on Hermanus’s future movements.

Let’s talk about male genitalia for a second. Skoonheid features some rather unnerving gay sex: hirsute pot-bellies, pale thighs crashing into displayed buttocks. The absence of the cock in these shots is really quite remarkable. Look, I’m not saying “alright, show me a couple of cocks and I’ll shut up and be happy.” But that sex scenes which are possessed of such a monstrous atonality could strategically cut and manoeuvre around the crotch is suspicious. Why the decision to capitulate to reigning anxieties about the male organ – it does appear a rather conservative gesture amidst all that clearly flagrant, rule-shattering fuckery.

Also, let’s consider François more closely, and I should add that he is portrayed with an inscrutable, enigmatic brilliance by Lotz. Dependent on your perspective, the film either triumphs or disappoints in the impossibility of properly working François out. His repressions are not laid bare for us to apprehend. This personalisation has a potential pitfall for interpretation, because can we understand François as a synecdoche for white male South Africa, or is he a character study unto himself? Certainly the clues for piecing together national allegory are tentatively provided. One character references Apartheid as a time when “at least we were safe”, adding “now they’re forcing us to be racists.” The other overt reference to history eludes me at present, but the temptation is certainly potent to draw François into something greater than simply a domestic tragedy – for if that is all there is to it, he retreads the well-rehearsed audition into a corpus of literature and film already bloated with entrants. Now, I’m almost tempted to theorise quite nakedly here about a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which we see that the white men of the present are “also fucked up”; are a divided species caught up in a vortex of repression, lack of belonging (etc.) which is dramatised through symbolic struggles with desire. Candidly, I admit that a single viewing is not sufficient to affirm these theses, but that this film can excite them at all is a point in its favour. (see: local novelist James Clelland’s Deeper than Colour for more on white male middle-agedom and nation)

Ultimately, the film drags itself slowly toward its understated climax, which is the best part about it. Here, in this melancholy conclusion at a Spur, we catch the briefest flicker whereby François is humanised, because everywhere else it is raw, aching lust and not emotion which appears to animate him. I cannot resist the joke here that the film’s indisputable thematic contribution is an indictment of service standards at Free State Spur Steak Ranches. When his waiter takes his order for a monkey-gland burger, he doesn’t inquire whether he wants “chips and onion rings”. What if the man just wanted a motherfucking baked potato, huh? What if he wanted a trip to the Salad Valley? I presume in Bloemfontein it’s more acceptable for men to beat their wives than eat salads. That there was no ice in his drink also didn’t slip by me. Laughs aside, though, it is at this moment that the familiar and coherent trope of middle-age trauma flits into our sights, and so it ends on this profound note. That final sequence, that ephemeral moment of recognition registered on François’s stony face, makes all the slow, solipsistic pursuits of the protagonist suddenly worthwhile. It allows us access to François’s tragedy: and it’s a tragedy of not being able to mould himself to the schemas of life provided; of being scrambled by his own desires and not understanding how they connect to his emotion.

I have tried here rather desperately to avoid damning this film with faint praise, because the urge is there: “As far as South African cinema is concerned, this film is something of a masterpiece.” That has always been an underhanded criticism, because the compliment robs itself of itself with the localising qualifier. The mere and naked existence of this film should cause a tidal-wave of whiplashed necks, as other, lesser directors violently hang their heads ashamed. But still, there is a something ambiguous and ambivalent about this film. It’s complicated, resisting easy evaluation. The corresponding urge, is to over-praise this film, glossing over its elements which are old and yet not fully formed, and this needs to be resisted just as toughly. Although this is as ever a variation on a million possible reactions, I think that Skoonheid is still a fair distance away from being a masterpiece – I think for all its merits, it can be muddied, incomplete, lacking coherence, cautious and (most damningly) familiar – but I do think that its director has demonstrated a certain artistry and I look forward to seeing what he produces in the future. Watch this film, because it is one of the early suggestions of the power of South African cinema – a capacity to be more compelling and interrogatory than the sort of pseudo-American bullshit usually slurped up by our trembling, nationalist media and announced as “lekker.”

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