Toronto 2011 Review: SKOONHEID

Beauty is a South African film about a family man (Francois) who is actually a repressed homosexual. His marriage is unhappy and soured as he doesn’t feel attracted to his wife and he is distant with his daughter.

rating: 2.5

Well here it is folks, the day I€™ve been waiting for€ TIFF 2011 starts today and there€™s a ton of exciting films worth catching at the festival. Too many to see in fact so I€™m going to have to make my choices wisely€ This morning at 9am I dragged my British ass to the TIFF Bell Lightbox to catch the first film of the event: Skoonheid (UK title Beauty). Beauty is a South African film about a family man (Francois) who is actually a repressed homosexual. His marriage is unhappy and soured as he doesn€™t feel attracted to his wife and he is distant with his daughter. The film begins at a wedding that contains a really interesting zooming shot. It€™s a slow zoom and at first we are provided with no frame of reference so as to ascertain what it is we should be looking at, and even more importantly, who€™s perspective we are in fact sharing. Eventually once the crowds of people start to shift we see that we are in fact voyeuristically staring at a young 20 something male (Christian) who is extremely attractive. The musical accompaniment to this shot is a beautiful piece of classical piano that builds in intensity as the camera gets closer to the object of desire. The young man then looks directly into the camera and for a split moment the beauty reaches a crescendo€ before immediately snapping back to a very normal, dull reality. Our main character, the family man, lusts solely for his friend€™s son, who coincidentally seems to get along very well with his daughter€ Sadly, the film never really reaches the highs of that particularly inventive opening shot. Some say a film can reach its zenith too early, but to start on it? It€™s a real shame that the film does not maintain its momentum as the opening was full of exciting and intriguing promise. Unfortunately most of the film is spent with Francois moping around and going about his daily business. Characters and sub plots are introduced, before promptly never being mentioned again and a conclusion to them is not even attempted. Essentially the purpose of the film was to give a snapshot of a repressed man€™s life, so obviously it€™s not going to be so cut and paste and everything cannot be tied off with a neat little ribbon, however there needs to be something compelling to see. The film is ultimately as empty as Francois feels, which yes, great metaphor and all, but as an audience member it can feel like you are staring into a void. There is an overarching issue here about the stigma attached to homosexuality within certain cultures and how it makes men feel trapped, but it never offers a solution to this plight. In fact, it merely just points at it from a distance. This is even more evident at the awkward sequence where Francois arrives at a secret meeting in the middle of nowhere. Looking around the room at the other men, these are all family men, a lot of them relatively old. The atmosphere is incredibly awkward, even amongst other men who feel the same way as them they find it awkward to express themselves openly. They stand there, drinking beer in the same way that a normal couple would perhaps put on a condom before sex. These men need alcohol so they can rationalize their actions to themselves. It€™s a very sorry state of affairs and the actual orgy that follows is pretty much the antithesis of passionate. Personally, I find it very peculiar in a world where I can watch a film like Little Children and feel sympathy for a pedophile, but I watch a film about a man suffering from repression and isolation within a family unit and I cannot muster a care in the world. The main event of the film consists of Francois getting gradually closer and closer to Christian as possible, practically stalking him. When we look at Christian we share Francois€™ twisted viewpoint, voyeuristically admiring the young man€™s physique. All of this boils over after Francois goes to a gay club and gets horrifically inebriated before calling Christian to pick him up. Christian happily drives him back to his hotel room as he is an aspiring lawyer and wants to represent Francois€™ lumber mill business. Well, let€™s just say Francois gets a little too confident and proceeds to beat and rape young Christian. This scene is mercifully brief, and though in no way near as brutal as Irreversible (pretty much the giger counter for all rape scenes in cinema) it€™s young Christian€™s visceral choking and cries of pain that cut into you. Considering that this is an early morning screening and the rest of the film had slowly been putting me into a coma this scene was like a caffeine shot to the eyeballs. Despite the fact that this scene was essentially Francois being masculine, taking control and seizing what he desired it was consequently pathetic, much like the man. After Christian is lying face down on the bed and stops fighting, reduced to a catatonic state of terror, Francois is actually too drunk to get it up properly and tries to masturbate in frustration, all in vain. The fact that after this scene there are no repercussions for his actions, no consequences, it€™s never mentioned again, he just doesn€™t see Christian. Francois clearly still thinks about him, but the consequences of his actions never come to light, making the entire thing disappointingly redundant. The film culminates in another effective sequence where Francois sits alone, depressed in a random café, watching a gay couple openly kiss. There is love between them and they are happy, which makes Francois feel even more incompetent. He stares longingly at them, wishing he had a spine no doubt. One could argue that he has responsibilities to his family, but his heart isn€™t there and neither is his head, the interaction between himself and his family is minimal and distant. Francois is pretty much the walking advertisement for the dangers of shame and repression and his actions are unforgivable. The final shot of the film is a shot of the circular interior of the down ramp of aparking structure. This is a symbolic representation of the cyclical nature of shame and repression and it€™s empty existence. Essentially the film serves as a warning that something similar will happen with Francois again, when he finds a new target for his obsession.Repression is unhealthy and while the message behind this film is complex and poignant, ultimately it is actually a little muddled in the execution. It is directed in a very empty and emotionless style, which to an extent is understandable considering the property, however due to it€™s unsteady execution it is a film that serves to alienate and isolate its audience rather than pull them onboard with the issue that is being addressed. Simply, the fundamental flaw with Beauty is that to be a profound issue film, you cannot merely point a finger at the issue; people are aware of its existence, exposing it doesn€™t help anyone and it doesn€™t offer a solution. While the film serves as a condemnation of the very nature of repression it doesn€™t seek to offer any alternative, which in my opinion is the difference between an €œIssues Film€ and a profound film about issues. Beauty unfortunately falls into the former category. Although saying that, it€™s certainly worth a watch if only for some of the inventive camera work and the good performances all round. Who knows, the issue may speak to you directly.
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