Director Oliver Hermanus’s dreamlike, intoxicating new film Beauty is a character study of a man who is both a monster and a victim.
Set in vibrant, colourful modern-day South Africa, the film tells the story of François (Deon Lotz), a carpenter and family man with a wife and daughter. He has a secret, however, that makes his life a rather troubling one. Although loudly homophobic and bigoted, he is secretly gay and yearns to have sex with Christian, the highly attractive twenty-something son of a family friend.
The plight of a man trapped in a domestic situation which is at odds with his sexuality is not a new one to the big screen, but it is rarely investigated in such detail. Beauty is a sad reminder that, across the globe, thousands, maybe millions, of LGBT people are living lives of repression and deep unhappiness due to the social attitudes of where they live or the culture and political climate of their community when they were growing up.
François copes (or tries to cope) with his repressed desires by driving out to the country and having group-sex with a number of other middle-aged men while watching hardcore pornography.
It is clear that our protagonist yearns for something more. He has a cold, empty relationship with his wife. She nags him constantly, and he fails to show her any kind of affection. In one scene he sits alone in a restaurant and looks over at another table to see two young men, evidently in love, chatting happily way. This is the life François has never been able to find.
As the film continues, it becomes hard for us to feel sorry for François due to the decisions he makes and the innocent people he manipulates. The narrative builds to a disturbing scene of sexual violence which takes him into the realms of the unforgivable.
Hermanus’s intense and slow style may not be to everyone’s tastes. It’s told in a painfully beautiful way and features many long static shots. The director’s talent is most noticeable in some of these. It is clear he is an expert in composing the mise en scène, and each frame speaks volumes and tells a story within itself.
Beauty is a disquieting experience and a superb adult drama. It won’t send you home in a happy mode, but it will certainly give you more than enough to think about. This is a film for those who enjoy complex, dark and challenging stories with characters who are both morally dubious and devastatingly sympathetic.
Beauty (2011), directed by Oliver Hermanus, is distributed in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures, Certificate 18. The film contains strong real sex and a scene of sexual violence. More information on the content of the film can be found at www.bbfc.co.uk.