May 3, 2014
With my recent viewing and reviewing of Aryan Kaganof’s wonderfully wayward rape musical Nice to Meet You, Please Don't Rape Me! (1996), I felt it was about time that I checkout another, albeit somewhat less controversial, South African film about sexual pillaging, Beauty (2011) aka Skoonheid aka Purity directed by relatively young Capetonian auteur Oliver Hermanus (Shirley Adams). As I learned after talking to a white South African cinephile, apparently there is no way in hell that a film like Skoonheid would have been allowed to see the light of day during the apartheid. Indeed, aside from featuring a brutally disgusting and stomach-churning scene towards the end of the film that puts the strangely iconic ‘squeal like a pig’ scene from John Boorman’s Appalachian classic Deliverance (1972) to shame in terms of its random rectum-reaming gruesomeness, the film also features a less than thinly disguised attack on the values of the white Afrikaner communist, especially the old school bourgeois that came of age during the apartheid era and now must face the natural repercussions of being white during a new era black rule. A somewhat nasty reworking of Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice (1912) set mostly in Cape Town that was directed in a glaringly Haneke-esque style (indeed, Hermanus has cited The Piano Teacher (2001) as being one of his favorite films), Skoonheid centers around a successful married Afrikaans businessman who leads a second secret life as an alpha-homo (he is a 'top') and becomes obsessed with (and ultimately begins stalking) his old best friend’s handsome collegiate son. In the film's depiction of an older and rather introverted sexually repressed man brought up under a strict authoritarian system that does not look too kindly on homos who develops a dangerously fanatical and ultimately violent infatuation with a young heterosexual man, Hermanus' film also owes a heavy thematic debt to John Huston's Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) starring Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, as well as The Sergeant (1968) starring Rod Steiger. As director Hermanus—a man of mixed racial origin (aka ‘mystery meat’)—revealed in an interview with the major Marxist website World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) as to why he decided to set the film in Bloemfontein: “I chose it because I assumed it was the sort of South African city where I’d never want to spend my life. It’s a bastion of Afrikaanerdom and very segregated. It was the capital of the Orange Free State in the first republic of South Africa and was where the British first established concentration camps to lock up Afrikaners during the Boer War.” Indeed, it terms of its glaring ‘new left’/Reichian style critique of the white Afrikaner community, Skoonheid utilizes similar libelous clichés that one would expect from a heavy-handed filmmaker like Spielberg (i.e. the complete fabrication in Schindler's List that Yid-killer Amon Goeth was secretly in love with a Jewess). Still, Hermanus manages to bring a degree of nuance to the central character in that, although he is a conservative cracker who loathes coloreds and eventually rapes a young man as a result of being sexually repressed, he is still a sympathetic character to the audience, at least to some extent, yet Skoonheid ultimately blames white-ruled South Africa for the protagonist’s sexual savagery and it thus pathetically predictable in that regard, as if the director wanted to kiss the mainstream left's already bloated bunghole. Aesthetically, the film straddles a healthy median between arthouse and Hollywood and is thus a sort of South African equivalent to Tom Ford’s A Single Man (2009) as a dark and tragic fag flick that most people can relate to, yet due to its single scene of sadistic forced sodomy towards the end, Skoonheid also features a tiny tinge of exploitation that might appease the appetites of jade gorehound and ex-convicts.
Middle-aged business owner and family man Francois van Heerden (Deon Lotz) is at his eldest daughter’s wedding party, but he is not celebrating his little girl’s big day as his discernibly lonely eyes are magnetized to a young law student and advert actor named Christian Roodt (Charlie Keegan), who is the son of the protagonist’s old friend Willem (Albert Maritz). Francois has not seen Christian, who calls him ‘uncle Francois’ out of habit, in 7 years and he is determined not to wait another 7 years to seem again, yet he lives in a conservative suburban Bloemfontein and the young man lives in 'liberal' multicultural Cape Town. To make matters worse, Francois’ young statuesque blonde daughter Anika (Roeline Daneel) and Christian have just started a romance of sorts, thus evolving into a truly bizarre love triangle that only the protagonist is aware of. In fact, Francois resents his two daughters and bitchy wife Elena (Michelle Scott) because, as a closet homo, he hates women, especially the sort that incessantly nag at him. Indeed, Francois is part of a secret group of suburban Afrikaner sodomites that all randomly meet at one of the members’ house and engage in discrete micro-orgies of sorts. When one of the members of the sod collective attempts to bring an effeminate negro to the orgy, he is told “no crazies…no coloreds” and that he is “no longer welcomed” and thrown out of the house in a somewhat physically aggressive manner, thus demonstrating there is an unspoken apartheid of sorts among Afrikaner South African suburban sodomites. Naturally, Francois begins stalking Christian, who is always hanging out with Anika. Due to his undying infatuation with Christian’s charming twink beauty, Francois begins to suffer acute anxiety and irritably and even goes to a doctor to address what are ultimately psychosomatic symptoms. Indeed, Francois is god's loneliness gay man, but he self-deludes himself into coming up with an absurd plan to make Christian his boi toy.
Ultimately, Francois plans a fake business trip to Cape Town so he has an excuse to spend time with Christian. When Francois arrives at the Roodt home, he cannot keep his eyes off Christian and when the young man complains he wants an iPod, the business man goes out and buys one for him as a present. Upon hearing that Christian has headed to a place called Clifton Beach, Francois lies to his friend Willem so he can get the young man’s phone number, but when he arrives at the beach to surprise his crush with the iPod, he sees that the boy is with his daughter Anika. Enraged his much resented daughter is with the mensch he loves, Francois calls the cops on his progeny for ostensibly stealing his car (she drove his BMW to get to Cape Town), thus ruining her date at the beach just as she had unwittingly ruined his. After his failed attempt to surprise Christian at the beach, Francois goes to a gay bar, tells an effeminate negro to “buzz off” when he attempts to hit on him, and barfs after drinking to many beers and getting turned on by a young Adonis-like fag. That same night, Francois manages to meet up with Christian and confesses to him, “Sometimes I still feel like becoming a pilot and flying way and leaving everything...everyone,” thus demonstrating his disillusionment with life. Christian is well aware of his charm as a handsome and likeable young man and clearly realizes Francois ‘likes’ him, so he offers his 'uncle' a ride because he wants to ask him to fund a business he hopes to start. When Francois and Christian go to the former’s hotel room, the latter asks his secret admirer for money for his potential business prospect. Francois attempts to kiss Christian, but the young man suavely rebuffs his advances and continues to talk about the money he would like to borrow. When Francois finally comes to the realization that Christian only wants to use him for his money, his loses his cool, goes completely beserk, and begins to beat and bugger the young man in a fierce fit of rage that leaves the law student completely emotionally and anally ravaged. A number of times during savagely sodomizing Christian, who cries like a little girl and does very little to fight back, Francois loses his erection. When everything is said and done, Francois’ sadistic sexual conquest seems like somewhat of a disappointment. As for Christian, one never knows what becomes of him, but he certainly never calls the cops on Francois and stops seeing his rapist’s daughter Anika. In the end, Francois goes back to business as usual, though he continues to admire young handsome homos from afar at restaurants and whatnot.
Ultimately, Skoonheid is a film about the inability of people to change once they have been brought up a certain way. In that regard, it seems director Oliver Hermanus thinks there is little hope from white Afrikaans who grew up in apartheid era South African. Indeed, all the white suburbanites of the film agree that “The country is going to hell” and that, in regard to the actions of the black-run ANC government, “They are forcing us to be racist.” As auteur Hermanus revealed in an interview with WSWS regarding why he had the white characters make these remarks: “These are very common sentiments amongst conservative white South Africans. In their private lives Francois and the milieu he’s from often discuss amongst themselves whether or not the apartheid system was better, safer for them. They may appreciate some of the new political changes, but at the end of the day they would choose the old system because it guaranteed them economic strength and security.” As Hermanus would also reveal in an interview with the UK website Idol Magazine regarding how the Afrikaner community has responded to the film: “The very conservative community was definitely scared, outraged, shocked. The younger community was very excited, but the general consensus was that the story wasn’t far-fetched, everyone felt they had an uncle or a brother who behaves in a similar way – emotionally distant, and you can sense that there is an underlying feeling of repression.” Indeed, more than its odd pro-gay liberationist message (to Hermanus’ credit, he did not want people to view his film as a ‘queer’ work, though it would ultimately win the coveted ‘Queer Palm’ at the Cannes Film Festival), Skoonheid is a film about the bitter end of white South Africa and the traditional white bourgeois Afrikaans community in general. Indeed, with the death of Francois’ generation while come a culture ‘gone with the wind,’ so to speak, and black South Africa will certainly express a sigh of relief when that day comes. Of course, when the day comes when whitey is gone, it is quite dubious whether or not films like Skoonheid will still be allowed to be made, especially in a backward nation where ‘corrective rape’ (aka raping lesbos in an ostensible attempt to convert them to heterosexuality) is quite vogue. Out all the potential rape scenarios that happen in real-life South Africa on a daily basis, Skoonheid manages to depict the most unlikely, thus more than clearly indicating where the brown filmmaker's sympathies lie. Indeed, while Skoonheid seems subversive on the surface, its message is undoubtedly as mainstream as they come, thereupon making it a work that is as equally disappointing as it is engaging. On the other hand, the film has incited some irrational hatred in LGBT-lobotomized homos comparable to William Friedkin's Cruising (1980) due to its less than flattering depiction of a crypto-cocksucker so, in that regard, Skoonheid certainly rises above the majority of sod celluloid swill of Hollywood and ultimately makes a great counterpoint to the shamelessly superficial sentimentality of Brokeback Mountain (2006).
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 10:35 PM
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