The Oliver Hermanus film Beauty ("Skoonheid" in the original; much of the film is in Afrikaans) centers on a middle-aged South African man named François (Deon Lotz), a deeply closeted husband and father whose self-control is already under strain from a lifetime of lies. His marriage to a woman named Elena, played by Michelle Scott, is rocky and somewhat cold, an incisive comment on what happens when gays are herded into marriages with people they might not have chosen if free to marry according to their hearts’ desires.)
When one of his daughters marries, the wedding brings François into contact once again with Christian (Charlie Keegan), the son of longtime family friends and also the boyfriend of François’ other daughter, Anika (Roeline Daneel).
Christian has blossomed into a spectacular young man. Though a law school student, Christian is also a model who is starting to attract some attention nationally. His looks and natural poise strike a chord in François, who, unequipped to handle his desire, begins to flail. François has already had a history of anxiety and anger management issues; now, his mounting lust, frustration, and confusion drive him toward more and more erratic behavior. He attends a gay orgy that, despite being a group sexual encounter among men, is seen by its participants as being closed to "faggots" (the sex party also excludes "coloreds") but, when his desires do not abate, François turns to stalking Christian.
The film is deeply unsettling. François is both a creep and a sympathetic character; you might feel like yelling at the screen for him to snap out of it, but, like heterosexual men of a certain age smitten by age-inappropriate beauties, François stumbles forward, step by step, toward a climactic and terrifying moment of violence and release.
This is an impressive and moody film, driven as much by Lotz’s powerful performance as by Hermanus’ precisely controlled direction. Haunting and raw, "Beauty" does what beauty always does: Leaves the beholder somewhat aghast, somewhat thrilled, and downright shaken.
This article is part of our "Cinema Diverse! Palm Springs 2014" series. Want to read more?
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