NOTE: Contains spoilers
At the wedding of his daughter, Francois van Heerden, thin-lipped and cold-eyed, watches a young man from across the room as he laughs and talks with friends; and if it wasn’t for the length of the stare, you wouldn’t know why. Francois is a man who has become the mask he must have donned years ago, from whichever point in time that he made the conscious decision to deny who he was.
His life is reflected on his face – it is a mask and the mask is without expression. He and his wife sleep in the same bed, yet they do not look at each other when they make conversation, let alone touch. He watches dispassionately from across the road as she embraces someone we assume to be her lover and then drives away without murmur. He appears to be a regular at a meeting of white Afrikaan men – no “faggots” and/or “coloureds” allowed – who have unappetizing and unfeeling sex with each other before going back to their suburban, heterosexual lives.
Yet, under this detachment in Francois lies something that puts us on edge, although we cannot at once put our finger on it. If the adage “calm before the storm” could have face, it would be Francois’s.
Set in the predominantly white South African town of Bloemfontein, Oliver Hermanus’s film begins at the starting point of a crisis in Francois’ careful, controlled life. It is at his elder daughter’s wedding that he notices Christian – the embodiment of youth in its prime – a regular good looking law student who is around his younger daughter Anika’s age. Indeed, it is because of the potential connection between Christian and Anika that Francois’ involvement with Christian deepens. That night, when his wife suggests calling Christian and his parents for lunch before they head back on their 15 hour drive back to Cape Town, Francois has no objections. This second meeting only fuels Francois’s desire to know more about Christian whom he watches discreetly, but very intently. Whenever the camera cuts to Christian during these interactions, the shot is taken up entirely by his face – too close for comfort.
As the film progresses, Francois’s grip on his self-control gradually slips away. He fabricates a business trip to Cape Town so that he can nudge Christian’s parents into returning the invitation for a meal at their home. He follows Christian around, watching him at a safe distance while he hangs out with his university friends, or relaxes by the beach. When he sees that Christian is in fact at the beach with his daughter, Anika, the only sign of his rage is his clenched hand that grips a bag containing an iPod he wanted to gift to Christian. Later, he punishes Anika severely and disproportionately for sneaking out of the house. That night, he gets drunk at a gay club where he viciously rejects the advances of a black-African man, and then calls Christian to pick him up and take him back to his hotel.
Up until this point in the film, Francois seems almost in love with Christian. Obsessed, yes, but still not quite sinister. I may be wrong, but I can only recall two instances where he smiles in the film and both times, he is watching Christian. Each time, the smile is fond, tender, and softens a face that is usually so cold and set.
In his hotel room, when Francois clumsily tries to kiss Christian, the young man jerks away, surprised and embarrassed. Francois’s control slips out of his grasp and he reacts to the rejection with a violence that is breathtaking. The rape itself is just as clumsy as his initial advances, but nevertheless horrendously savage – probably one of the most confronting scenes I have ever had to watch. Christian fights at first but then gives up; his terrified sobs fade into silence but his wide, shell-shocked eyes scream for help and mercy.
From this point onwards, Francois’s life abruptly goes back to normal. He tells his wife he was mugged, which explains away his bruises from the struggle with Christian. They go to a book signing together. He cleans their pool dutifully, just as he said he would. We see no more of Christian but the director leaves us with a series of hints that could either be interpreted or just left where they are. As he is cleaning out the pool which is algae-green from underuse, he fishes out a shirt and pants, stares at them long and hard before continuing. He asks Anika if she has spoken to Christian recently but when she says no, he shrugs and leaves. He pulls out great wads of cash from the bank and sits at a restaurant where he seems to be waiting for someone – is it Christian, we wonder?
When he drives away from this meeting, all we see is the spiral of road in front of the car which goes, down, down, down.. and the film is over. All we are left with is the gut knowledge that wherever Francois is going, it is no where good.
I saw this film some hours ago and still find myself absolutely shaken.
It is a quiet film, in that it that does not make judgements or even encourage the audience to do so in its place – in fact, it raises more questions than answers. Its drama is tightly contained, much like Francois’s self control, and there is a lot left to suggestion. That being said, almost every scene is put in front of the audience as it is, or rather, as Francois experiences it. There is barely any music to manipulate the senses – the only instance I can think of (although there must have been others) is the very first scene where Francois first notices Christian.
The most confronting scenes – like that of Francois having anonymous sex in his hometown and of course the rape – are dished out to us cold. No music to deliver a heightened sense of drama; just the visuals and mostly breathing – laboured, lustful, panicked, savage.
It this precisely this quietness that makes the film so powerful, in my opinion. During the rape, due to the lack of any other sound, I heard audible gasps all around me from the audience – one may have even been my own.
I was lucky enough to hear the director’s thoughts after the film had screened (as an aside, this screening was a part of the Sydney Film Festival), and interestingly, he was loath to give any definitive answers about the motivations of the film and the nature of its characters. Is Francois a villain? A victim of circumstance? Both? Neither? Oliver shrugs “It’s up to you,”.
One audience member asked him why he “abandoned” the Christian character straight after the rape, to which he replied that the film is purely from the viewpoint of Francois. “When Christian stops being an issue for Francois, he stops being an issue for me”. He did say that the rape was a kind of purging for Francois – a way to rid himself of his sin, a way to regain control and domination over his desire. I cannot be certain, but the rape seemed quite unsuccessful – in that, although Christian was violated in the most brutal sense, Francois was unable to maintain his lust and seemed simply to give up. He leaves to finish up in the bathroom, after which he comes back and calmly sits beside Christian who lies shaking on his stomach as he was left. We see Christian attempt to get up, blood dripping from his mouth; Francois, expressionless as always, stares ahead but does not move to stop him; the scene ends.
Skoonheid addresses a lot of issues. Self denial. Sexuality. Desire. Rape. Physical beauty. Race. Family dynamics and generational gaps. There are probably many more to add to this already extensive list. Still, it never gets ahead of itself, or pretends to be larger than it is. At the tail end of the film, when Francois is at the restaurant, he watches two young men kiss each other without any qualms about who may be watching and – more importantly – without any fear of societal repercussions for their obvious sexual preference. This is a life that could never be his; that, for whatever reasons, has passed him by. Instead he is left with a life that is meaningless and unfulfilling. What will happen to him beyond the film’s confinements is hard to guess at, and perhaps even unimportant. The film simply gives us a story. It is a difficult one to watch, but it is one that makes us think first, and then, almost secondarily, feel. My tears began only after the credits had rolled.