Oliver Hermanus’s film Skoonheid is raking in the prizes, whether in Cannes or, last weekend, at the Durban International Film Festival. I sure put my pink or yellow piece of paper, torn in the right place, into the boxes at the fest — it’s a fun idea. Not that I saw enough to make a difference to any vote, but it felt good.
It felt good, too, to see that Skoonheid is as good as it was bruited to be, and not just because it’s a South African film. After all the buzz, I worried I’d be disappointed. I certainly expected it to be bleak, based on Hermanus’s first film, Shirley Adams, of which I had seen the first 20 minutes. Twice.
I was at a screening of Shirley Adams at which the projection broke down. After a break we started again at the beginning. Then it stopped at precisely the same place — At which point I ran away. I felt like I’d been subjected to some jarring cinematic experiment by a Godard or Van Trier. Although it was only 20 minutes, I felt like I’d been following Shirley Adams around for days.
In Afrikaans, skoonheid means “beauty”, though I for one hear a connotation of cleanliness too — as in “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” (To which the joke reply is: No, I looked in the dictionary and it’s next to “cleaner fish”.) The upright godly morality, or at least its degenerated but socially binding descendent, which would value “cleanliness”, is strongly present in Skoonheid. It’s in the very marrow of white Bloemfontein, where François (Deon Lotz) is a married man with a closeted gay side-life who, in what the French call a coup de foudre, develops an obsession for a young family friend (Charlie Keegan).
Perhaps my mind reaches for French expressions because in a way this is a very French film, and not just because it was funded by French money. It was the great French critic André Bazin who lauded the cine camera’s ability to watch life unfolding. Skoonheid has this watchful quality; it’s in the very cinematography, where a patient camera allows shots slowly to reframe themselves or simply watches Lotz’s face as he watches others — for François is a great watcher.
Within the minimalism of Skoonheid, though, a great tension is building; it’s a quiet movie, in one way, then it gives you a good klap too.
Slant magazine correspondent Glenn Heath Jr said the movie was “the most difficult cinematic experience I’ve had at Cannes”, and I know some South Africans who will feel much the same way. It’s not entertaining in a conventional way, no; but I found Skoonheid riveting, with the severities of its story held in balance by the beauty of its composition.