26th BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival: Beauty
While arts funding cuts mean that the Bird’s Eye Film Festival is stuck in the doldrums this year (thanks Tory government!), the BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival has fought off austerity to return for its 26th year, bigger and queerer than…er, last year. It’s long consolidated its spot in London’s LGBT calendar, but there’s no reason to think that sexual proclivities limit the scope or the appeal of the programme (unless you only go to the cinema to pull, in which case you belong to a minority group that I just made up, and you should probably have your own alternative film festival). Read More…
If I were to list all the films I’ve seen until now that are about South Africa, the list would consist of Lethal Weapon 2 and cult sci-fi District 9. Temporarily ignoring the issue of me being shit at knowing about African cinema, this means that 100% of the films I’ve seen about South Africa are a) really good, and b) at least partly about apartheid. Beauty has apparently generated quite a bit of excitement amongst the younger populace for being the first South African film to get invited to compete at Cannes, where it won the Queer Palm last year, and as far as my list is concerned it’s still 100% on both fronts.
Ostensibly, the story is about Francois, a stout, imposing middle-aged patriarch who runs a timber firm and lives with his wife and youngest daughter in Bloemfontein, and who also happens to be secretly gay, and spends his spare time bumping uglies in a clandestine sex ring of burly, repressed Afrikaner dudes who are similarly unwilling to share their sexual urges with the wider world. After being reintroduced to Christian—the son of an old friend—at his daughter’s wedding, Francois develops a horribly obsessive crush on the handsome young law student, and things begin to get very, very uncomfortable; one scene in particular (and you’ll know the one I mean) is a particularly traumatic piece of eyeball-fuckery. The older man’s creepy, voyeuristic fixation is most strikingly played out in a number of long distance point-of-view shots, in which we can see people talking but not what they’re saying, leaving us, like Francois, to read body language and gesture and guess at what’s being said.
If that were all there was to Beauty, it’d still be a great film—an absorbing, disturbing study in obsession and repressed sexuality. But as director Oliver Hermanus explains, it’s also the catalyst for a long overdue conversation about issues in recent South African history, with Francois and his internal battle constituting a metonym for a generation of middle-aged white Afrikaners struggling to reconcile their conservative heritage with the post-apartheid political landscape, and troubled by the fact that the gays and blacks they were brought up to hate on now have equality and human rights. Francois—a man you can fully imagine having dished out the odd racist-vigilante beating back in the day—is both besotted with and jealous of Christian, who is able to slot comfortably into a society Francois and his cohort feel alienated from. In Afrikaans, the film’s title is Skoonheid, which sounds something like ‘skwonneed’ and means both beauty and cleanliness, nicely encapsulating the ambivalences embodied by Francois, as well as wider themes of purity and racist ideology, and the more general cluster of overlapping, contradicting socio-political undercurrents in contemporary South Africa. Which, given that my most recent cultural reference point for the country is the 2010 World Cup, puts a pretty interesting spin on the hokey, jingoistic PR bullshit drummed up for that particular circus.
What’s even more impressive is that Hermanus, who turned up for a Q&A at the LLGFF screening last weekend, is incredibly articulate, and you get the impression that absolutely nothing in Beauty, which juggles both an involving thriller narrative and a slew of complex subtextual issues with laudable dexterity and poise, has happened by accident. It’s an artful, compelling watch from a director to look out for. Just make sure to be braced for some stuff that’s definitely not beautiful.