Cannes (Un Certain Regard) – South African-born director Oliver Hermanus pitches up in Cannes with his second feature, and he's not yet even 30. Makes you sick, doesn't it? The last sliver of solace for an underachieving Paul Martin will be if the movie turns out to be cobblers. So, does it?
There is a big scene probably about three-quarters of the way through Skoonheid which is likely to dominate discussion of the film. It is certain to be the sequence which will get audience tongues wagging when the movie eventually surfaces on general release (a year from Cannes to the local cineplex seems about the average journey duration).
The scene in question is shocking and powerful, a devastating explosion after just over an hour of ratcheted tension. Although as I was watching it, the latent portion of my cerebellum was wondering what Roland Emmerich would make of it, the kaiser of cinematic collateral damage having previously acted as patron to Skoonheid's wunderkind director Oliver Hermanus, sponsoring his MA at the London Film School.
To be honest, given that Roland has built his Hollywood career on visiting death, destruction and presumably horror on vast swathes of humanity, all in CG-boosted widescreen, he might cherish all the unpleasantness. Even if the emotional punch of Skoonheid is rather meatier that the White House being given the great galactic kiss-off in ID4.
The dilemma for me as a movie reviewer is how to address this scene. To reveal or not to reveal – that is the question. But while this scene is to Hermanus's film what Leo being revealed as a loon was to Shutter Island, or what the needles 'n' piano wire torture was to Miike's Audition, part of the pleasure of Skoonheid (if pleasure is quite the right word to use in connection to a film that places you on the shoulder the head of a certifiable sociopath) is that for a long period you're not quite sure where it is all headed.
Tell you what, let's make the indecision semi-final, put off a decision on that spoiler for a little while longer, in order to bring you up to speed on the dark world of François van Heerden.
The opening sequence of the film provides a simple, effective springboard for the ensuing action: a wedding reception, a picture of joy, as guests line up to greet the bride and groom and share in their happiness. But the camera is not interested in this obvious focal point, instead honing in on a figure stood at the rear of the room – Christian Roodt (Charlie Keegan), a handsome young man who looks a bit like Dominic Cooper crossed with Matt Willis (if that is not to damn the dude's aesthetic qualities with faint praise).
Christian is the 'beauty' who gives Hermanus's film its title, that 'b' word being the English translation of the Afrikaans word 'skoonheid'. (most of the movie is in Afrikaans, although characters vacillate between that and English with the ease of moving between breathing through your nose and breathing through your mouth).
Melancholy-tinged piano plays over the top of the scene, at this point incongruously, as there seems no hint that Christian is anything other than the pleasure-seeking youth he appears, as yet untainted by the cynicism or weighed down by the responsibilities that duly arrive as the years fall by. Cut to François van Heerden, a heavy-built man in his mid-forties (Deon Lotz, giving a committed and convincing performance), and we understand that the sadness evoked by the music is his; a man loitering on the sidelines of life, now afflicted by the germs of a new obsession.
With methodical efficiency, Hermanus and his co-writer/producer Didier Costet fill in the blanks of François's existence. Locked into an apparently moribund marriage to Elena (Michelle Scott), he rolls over in bed at night without giving her so much as a peck on the cheek. He works, with modest success, supplying timber materials to the construction industry. One afternoon, he drives to an isolated farmhouse and, with a group of similarly thick-set, middle-aged men, he partakes in a gay orgy, hardcore porn tapes of jizz-firing cocks playing away while the various bald heads and hirsute butts bob up and down.
Even this revelation comes wrapped in another contradiction, as François and his associates profess a shared distaste for “faggots” and “coloureds”. He seems a man struggling deeply with his own identity, pain hiding under the bravado, a point underlined when we discover he has a drink problem and is, on doctor's instructions, meant to be dry – something which, as we have seen, he most certainly is not.
François is a monstrous, pathetic figure. The mid-section of the film will leave you cringing with embarrassment as he attempts to ingratiate himself with Christian, and reacts with childish jealousy as his own daughter, Anika (Roeline Daneel), grows closer to the young man (to diverge from the main matter for a moment, one point of confusion comes from the fact Christian refers to François as “uncle”. I've already seen one critic take this literally in his review of the movie, but I am pretty sure this is just a term of respect for a family friend, rather than an indication of a blood relation. If it is a family bond then the entire movie is incest-a-go-go, which I do not think it is).
It all builds to the harrowing sequence I mentioned and then proceeded to dance around at the outset of this review. And given that you're highly unlikely to forget the scene once you've seen it, it seems maybe fairest enough to maintain the mystery for a little longer.
Rating on a scale of 5 Roland Emmerich seals of approval: 4
Release date: UK = TBC; US = TBC
Directed by: Oliver Hermanus
Screenplay by: Oliver Hermanus, Didier Costet
Cast: Deon Lotz, Charlie Keegan, Michelle Scott, Roeline Daneel
Cert: UK = TBC; US = TBC
Running Time: 99 minutes