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Skoonheid – a film that confronts truths, both beautiful and ugly

By Mandy De Waal 24 July 2011

Oliver Hermanus has made a movie called “Skoonheid” which exposes the private shames and secret obsessions of a conservative, white, Afrikaans man. A study in regret, lust and self-destruction, this film is a distinctive lens on the subject of beauty. By MANDY DE WAAL.

Francois van Heerden has quite a neat life. He is a family man in his mid-forties who lives in Bloemfontein and is well established. Van Heerden has all the trappings of a peerless Calvinist existence, but beneath the veneer of this seemingly faultless Afrikaner lives a seething nest of internal conflict.

Van Heerden is the protagonist in Oliver Hermanus’ latest film, “Skoonheid” (Beauty) which recently made history by being the first Afrikaans film to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival. The fifth local director to show at Cannes, Hermanus’ movie was screened in the “Un Certain Regard” section of Cannes’ official selections, which runs alongside the Palme d’Or. The youngest director in the section, Hermanus’ peers included Gus van Sandt of “Good Will Hunting” and “Milk” fame.

“Skoonheid” is the story of a man who is the product of apartheid and feels excluded from the new South Africa. Raised within the confines of conservatism, Van Heerden carefully constructs his life to achieve societal approval, but experiences a sterile existence that fills him with profound regret and the conviction that his is a wasted life.

Watch the trailer of “Skoonheid” (YouTube):

“Francois feels this need to be young again because, in a few more years, he believes he will have lost the opportunity to pursue real happiness,” says Hermanus. When Van Heerden meets an Adonis who is the son of an old friend, the chance encounter undermines the foundations of his tidy life, but tentatively opens the door to the possibility of happiness.

The narrative says much about society’s obsession with beauty, but this is eloquently expressed through one man’s struggle blindsided by lust. In “Skoonheid”, Francois van Heerden’s neat life unravels because of his own obsession with youth and beauty.

“I first started thinking about the concept of beauty before I constructed the character of Francois. I was initially interested in the danger of beauty in all of us,” says Hermanus speaking to Daily Maverick from Cape Town. “We covet beautiful things, but what happens when you encounter something you want more than anything else in your life and you can’t have it?”

Hermanus says Van Heerden, played by Deon Lotz, becomes the perfect vehicle for his story because of the character’s need to restrict his true desires. “It ultimately becomes a challenge for Francois to resist this immense beauty and the complexity of his character creates a much greater dramatic leap into the act of wanting. If the central character was comfortable with himself, his pursuit of beauty would never have been quite so dramatic.”

Photo: Skoonheid poster; Oliver Hermanus.

The film gives audiences complete access to Van Heerden’s public and private lives. The movie lays bares his inner desires and fears, so the process of watching the film contains a sense of privilege as audiences are exposed to all aspects of this central character’s life.

Typically the Hollywood movie machine offers reductive cinema where characters are quickly marginalised into good and evil. “Film is storytelling and there is an age old custom of polar opposites,” says Hermanus. “In modern cinema the tension and balance in movies is usually managed through the interplay between good or bad characters. In ‘Skoonheid’ we see the conflict between good and bad playing out within one character.”

Audiences will readily identify with the on-screen drama, not only because of the authentic local milieu, but because virtually everyone can relate to the themes of beauty and obsession. “The privilege of cinema is that you get to express your darker thoughts, and you can project yourself on to the characters on screen. We all do strange things. We all construct strange situations where we display adolescent emotional behaviour. These adolescent emotions don’t die, but get masked by age.”

Hermanus says society has constructed an idea that beauty is important. That as humans we understand that we must cherish and protect beautiful things because they have a perceived economy of value. “It is a false value because younger, beautiful people are immediately noticed and have relevance when they walk into a room, based purely on what they look like.”

For the film’s young beauty, Christian Roodt (played by Charles Keegan), life is all about freedom and effortless flow. In stark contrast, Van Heerden expresses his social status through wealth, breeding and education. His value is created by denying his true self to gain acceptance by his peers.

“The moronic aspect of valuing beauty is that it is not of your own doing. You don’t own beauty, you are born that way. Despite beauty being transient and unearned, society places an incredibly high value on it,” says Hermanus. “Youth and beauty are dangerous. It is moronic to value them because they don’t last.”

The dénouement in the film is violent and could prove difficult for people to watch, but may make audiences wonder about the choices they make in their own lives. “I am so curious to see how people in South Africa experience the film. They may be compelled to see the movie from a sense of pride or because of the language, but the film will definitely challenge them. The characters are people they will know. They will recognise Francois and the fabric of his world, but his private life and thoughts will make for an unnerving ride,” says Hermanus, who has insisted that “Skoonheid” not be relegated to the art circuit.

Watch Charles Keegan being interviewed about his role in “Skoonheid”:

“There’s an abstraction that happens in Cinema Nouveau-type movies. There’s this artificial division that is created which is a strange kind of cinematic apartheid. In a multiplex in France you choose whether you want to see the latest Hollywood movie or something more avant-garde. The choice exists in your mind, not through the separation of physical locations,” says Hermanus.

“The separation between mainstream films and art-house movies has a subconscious effect on audiences who ask themselves if they want to be challenged before they go to Cinema Nouveau. I feel a big part of my responsibility is to bridge the gap between so called ‘art films’ and mainstream cinema,” he says.

Due for release in South Africa in the first week of August, “Skoonheid” is a provocative film that exposes Afrikaner sexuality in a way no movie has done before. This will predictably cause sectors of the community to take umbrage, but for those mature enough not to succumb to knee-jerk reactions, it could prove to be an epiphany. DM


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