[FILM: Interview] Beauty
Not many films have made it out of South Africa into general cinema circulation over the last decade – you could probably count them on two hands, and in Australia they would include genre fare like District 9 and Tsotsi, co-productions such as Phillip Noyce’s Catch A Fire, Steve Jacobs’ Coetzee adaptation Disgrace, and Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, and smaller arthouse fare like Skin, Yesterday, Life, Above All, and the documentary Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony.
Not one of these doesn’t take as its inspiration fraught social issues in the country – from apartheid and racism to violence, AIDS, and poverty. Films dealing with homosexuality are less common – both within South Africa but also in its international output. So with his sophomore feature Beauty (or Skoonheid), South African director Oliver Hermanus breaks new ground, by portraying the fall-out of apartheid’s repressively hetero-normative and Anglo-centric atmosphere through the eyes of a middle-aged, closeted-homosexual Afrikaner – and by managing to sell the film overseas, thanks in no small part to its screening in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section section last year, where it picked up the Queer Palm.
Despite being a mixed-race (“I’m what you call ‘coloured,’” he says candidly) child of the apartheid era (he was 11 when the general election took place in 1994, and so grew up in the kind of environment where his communist academic father and activist mother buried contraband political literature and banned films in the backyard), Hermanus seems guided less by a political agenda than a social one. His debut feature, Shirley Adams, is a portrait of motherhood and poverty in Cape Town’s outer suburbs; Beauty has a humanist rather than necessarily queer point of origin.
“The concept of beauty was the hinge; I wanted to have a character who had a very tense relationship with the concept of beauty or the virtue of beauty, because he feels like he’s outside of that world,” Hermanus explains. “He feels that there are beautiful people in the world, and they walk into a room and immediately have a hold over people – and he doesn’t identify as being like that.
I connected with that part of the character, and then the rest of him kind of just formed – in terms of how far removed was he, and then the question of how strong can I make that pursuit of happiness or that pursuit of an object of desire. Because if it was a married man who wants to have an affair with another woman, it’s not such a great journey for the character to make.”
The result is FranНois, a paunchy, middle-aged Afrikaner businessman, husband and father, who keeps his homosexuality under tight wraps, only letting it out at top-secret rural orgies amongst a strictly limited subset of conservative homosexuals – no coloureds, no fags; until he meets dreamy 23-year-old Christian, the son of one of his long-lost friends. Beauty charts the evolution of FranНois’ fantasy of a romance with Christian, as it also develops into a romance about the kind of life he could have lived.
“He’s denied himself so much, and he’s refused so much of who he is, really, so for him to then be exposed to that other person who could potentially be everything he’s ever wanted [is overwhelming],” says Hermanus. “And I think that everyone can maybe identify with that aspect of [FranНois] – we all have ambitions and dreams of meeting the perfect partner, and it can get dysfunctional at a certain point.”
Remarkably, Beauty pulls off an abrupt right-turn in which its more-or-less empathetic protagonist turns into a kind of monster. “That kind of society can produce this experience for someone, where they [feel that] it’s their last chance for something,” Hermanus explains. “[There was] a debate about how far into his own self-hatred is [FranНois]; because if he’s putting himself out there for the first time, and he’s trusting slowly but surely in this delusion that this other person cares for him, the way that we’d built him up – it was always a question of how would he react to that moment of rejection.”
The male-on-male rape scene in Beauty has made it somewhat notorious in a country where male rape is so taboo that Hermanus and his team couldn’t find even one man willing to talk to them about their personal experiences of rape. “People don’t report it,” the director says simply. “The repercussions of this violent act [in South Africa] are not as you would imagine in a Hollywood film…no retribution or reporting or accountability.”
Hermanus’ film has also become notorious as an example of how arthouse cinema languishes in a country dominated by escapist, Hollywood fare. A two-hour film dominated by static shots and close-ups of characters in repose, it proved a challenging proposition for South African audiences – prompting the director to write a newspaper column titled ‘Slow and Boring for Dummies’.
“[Our audiences] are so used to gorging on all this Hollywood stuff that they actually don’t know how to watch anything, to experience it; they’ve lost that ability, or maybe they never had it. And that was a big debate because it just seemed that people would dismiss [the film] because they didn’t understand that just because something is long and slow, doesn’t mean it’s boring.
“I find it interesting to watch the characters unfold through their eyes, seeing their emotions and experiences in real time – because I feel like that’s a chance for there to be a real connection with the character, as opposed to constructing it through photography or the cutting or the music,” the director argues – though he later admits that “it’s a matter of taste; you either enjoy those kinds of experiences or you don’t.”
What: Beauty – Dir. Oliver Hermanus
When: Now showing at Chauvel Cinema