There will be blood
Michael Raeburn’s adaptation of Marlene van Niekerk’s novel Triomf is billed as a tough, scary, funny look at the pathologies of the white South African soul. At least I think that’s what it’s about. Triomf is a claustrophobic family drama, set in the suburb of Johannesburg that used to be called Sophiatown and after forced removals became Triomf—and is now Sophiatown once more. The irony in the name Triomf alone is palpable.
The movie takes place on the brink of the 1994 election, when white fears were reaching a frothing climax (perhaps trumped only by present fears, but then present fears are less than horrible imaginings). Such social and political issues are reflected by the tortuous in-fighting of the Benade family, mom Mol (Vanessa Cooke) and dad Pop (Paul Lückhoff) and their sons Treppie (Lionel Newton) and Lambert (Eduan van Jaarsveldt).
Mol and Pop are sad, faded, bruised and battered figures; Treppie is a violent, foul-mouthed misanthrope endlessly blaring his hatred of the world and everyone in it. Lambert is a soft, confused—indeed mentally retarded—character. That Treppie spends some time trying to get Lambert laid is only partly a measure of a more kindly side to his rebarbative personality.
This is a portrait of what used to be called, impolitely, white trash—that is, the heavy-drinking white urban lumpenproletariat. Their natural political home is the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, except the AWB feels charmingly rural and churchy by comparison. Obviously there’s some symbolism going on here, given that the attitude of the bien-pensant filmgoer to such figures is likely to be one of distaste.
Certainly, they are a repulsive bunch. It’s possible to feel some pity for Mol and Pop, less so for Treppie and Lambert—but then this is a problem of the film’s attitude towards its characters. Lambert, in particular, is often played for laughs, and very uncomfortably so, given his mental incapacities. There is a fair amount of black humour here, between the shock moments and more drawn-out traumas, but one laughs, as it were, with lang tande.
Inevitably, given the gargantuan size of Van Niekerk’s novel, Raeburn’s adaptation had to trim the storyline back somewhat or simply lose some depth. The triumph, so to speak, of the novel was that the reader eventually began to feel for these characters in some way, despite their repulsiveness. I think that was an effect of the novel’s length and density (it simply ground one down, slowly and finely, like the mills of God), and it’s not possible to replicate that effect in the film. It can’t do interiority, and it dare not run for five hours.
Triomf is a good movie, well made in a grimly edgy way; it has strong performances that grip the viewer even if you hate the characters and basically want to turn your eyes away from either their suffering or their violence. It leaves one depressed and distressed, never mind exhausted by the feeling you’ve been screamed at by an alcoholic for several hours. Is it salutary to be asked to laugh at the pathetic Lambert? Does that say something revealing about us, the viewers/voyeurs? Are we to identify with the abusive, ranting Treppie? Does the film function as an “indictment” of something? If so, what?
There were key moments that, for me, said something about why, as an aesthetic and narrative experience, I found Triomf finally unsatisfying. During one particularly shocking sequence, the film cuts to a little dog cowering beneath the bed. Cuts to cute pets (the animal-reaction shot) are a staple of sentimental Hollywood-type filmmaking; here it is hilarious as well as disturbing. Contrast that, though, to the raging baboon behind a fence near the Benades’ home, shots of which seem inserted every time the point about human inhumanity needs to be driven home.
Then there are the supporters of political parties who parade through the streets of Triomf ahead of the 1994 election. Perhaps for budget reasons, it felt as though they were the same group of extras in varying clothes and with new banners each time. Sometimes real parties are represented, but, at a key moment for the characters, the paraders seem to belong to a party we’ve never heard of. It’s hard to work out how that is supposed to function in the story, and it made me wonder about the overall question of realism in film, a question particularly acute here, where we’ve had so much gritty, grungy nastiness shoved at us. We can just about take it when we view it as “real”, but it’s harder when it’s not.
We understand that what’s called realism is very often filled with surreptitious or not-so-surreptitious symbolism. In Triomf that line shifts uncertainly. Which parts of it are going as real people in a real world, worthy of sympathetic attention, and what is symbolism, asking for analysis of meaning? I don’t think the film knows.