Friday 20 April 2012

The beholder: "Beauty"

The raw meat of the South African drama Beauty is the dreadful awkwardness of men around feelings. It opens at a wedding - a breeding ground for this stuff - where a slow camera tracks elegantly past several perfectly nervy extras before alighting on the handsome features of young Christian (Charlie Keegan), a law student and part-time model; inevitably comfortable in his own skin, he's surrounded by attractive female company. Thing is, it turns out it isn't just the camera scanning the room. Also looking on is a friend of Christian's family, the bluff, balding, long married François (Deon Lotz), a fortysomething man's man who runs a timber company in Bloemfontein.

As François is the image of a successful businessman (motto: "I don't fart around - I get the job done"), we suspect he may be jealous of this young upstart; Christian refers to him as "Uncle François", with the undercurrent of joshing that entails. Yet we get an intimation of just how ill-at-ease François is generally when he drives out of town one lunchtime for an assignation at a house in the countryside ringed by pick-up trucks and tractors. After awkward introductions between the other white, stocky, middle-aged men knocking back tinnies in the kitchen - someone's tried to bring a young black man to the gathering, which causes unwanted friction ("we're not faggots, Gideon") - the reason for this meeting is finally revealed: this is a fuck-and-suck party for men from sturdy agricultural stock trying to keep their desires firmly on the DL.

What we watch from here on in are the cracks emerging in the closet François has built around his burly form. Increasingly more comfortable around other men (or around no-one at all) than the wife he rows with, he checks into a hotel suite in Cape Town and begins obsessively tailing Christian - the younger man now seen for what he is: not a rival, but an object of misplaced affection. How François's heart races when he spies Christian embracing a male contemporary; how it sinks when the boy is later observed at the beach with a girl. That François keeps his distance throughout his quest - lingering on the margins, ducking behind hedges - serves as another pointed cinematic reminder of just how hung up men are as a gender on images: Christian's model good looks do little to lessen this infatuation, and it seems telling that, even back at the out-of-town love ranch, hardcore gay porn is playing to help sustain (at the very least) a mood.

This plot point will be underlined - in less graphic fashion - in a later scene that finds François watching rugby at a friend's barbeque, trying to sustain the illusion of being a bloke among blokes; it will be rammed home in a later sex scene where - for better or worse, depending on your relationship with these characters - there isn't the porn on hand to sustain anything. You could see Oliver Hermanus's film as a rather more earthy and carnal (not to mention credible) Death in Venice, or the queer Vertigo: Hitch, certainly, would have approved of the film's closing shot. Actually, the film Beauty most reminded me of was Laurent Cantet's very fine, psychologically acute Time Out, not least for the broad-shouldered, bull-necked Lotz's physical resemblance to the earlier film's leading man Aurélien Recoing.

Both these films are motivated by the question of what drives a man to lie to himself and others, and furthermore to maintain the lie even when it starts to do its inevitable damage. Beauty is also the film that shows Shame up as so much artful surface. François is more than just a penis in a nice scarf, wearing away at himself; the character sits at the centre of a complex, not always easily discerned set of relationships. His actions will impact upon others, which makes them a good deal more involving, more suspenseful, than Shame's victimless fucks; when he approaches bottom in a gay bar - marked by nothing so melodramatic as his throwing up in a bin - there are reasons for him to be there. Anchored by Lotz's superb performance, Hermanus's film forms an attempt to fully inhabit and explain its obsessed protagonist's universe, and intuit exactly what he's thinking at any given moment - even if those thoughts are pulling him in two separate directions at once, tearing him apart.

In a late-night confessional to Christian, François admits he once aspired to being a pilot, and that he harbors hopes of flying away someday, a revelation that makes us wonder whether this one pitiful crush has made him question his entire identity. When he tops this speech with the line "some people don't know how to hold it together - I do," the extent to which he's been deluding himself becomes painfully clear - even before the film's horribly tense and disturbing conclusion. In Shame, Brandon's profession remained abstract, the better to serve the film's tenuous thesis about modern life: he desired, therefore he was. In Beauty, even the protagonist's stock-in-trade resonates far beyond the obvious pun: the tragedy of this superbly crafted, truly haunting film is that of a man who, even when he's got wood, simply doesn't know what to do with it.

Beauty opens in selected cinemas from today.

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