Every film is perfect during those few seconds after the lights go down, the curtains part and the projector starts whirring. Some maintain that high standard even longer. Beauty, a new South African picture that’s easier to admire than to like, is a work of considerable control, consistency and intelligence. From its masterful opening shot, we know we are in safe hands even as the director Oliver Hermanus leads us on to dangerous ground.
Like American Beauty, with which it almost shares its title, this is a story of a bored, middle-aged man obsessed with one of his daughter’s friends. There the similarity ends. Beauty begins at a wedding reception in Bloemfontein. The camera gazes out at the guests mingling, drinking, laughing. As the long lens creeps further into the crowd, a face emerges gradually as the focus of its attention – a sublimely handsome young man in his early twenties. A tentatively played piano makes itself heard, banishing other sounds and bestowing on the fellow an air of wistful romantic idealism. We are enchanted.
So is François (Deon Lotz). This married timber merchant is plainly dazzled by Christian (Charlie Keegan), a part-time model who is training to be a lawyer. Christian is a chum of François’s daughter and the son of one of his old army buddies. The lad is courteous, smart and eager to please: he talks cheerfully to François, deferring to his professional experience. He can’t see that the older man’s feelings towards him are defined by a desire both ravenous and resentful.
François is the beast in Beauty. He wears an amused smile that can’t conceal the disgust with which he regards the world, and himself. The one explicit glimpse we get of his secret sex life is characterised by weirdly outdated iconography – fuzzy VHS pornography, rather than the online variety, plays in the background of a scene that is a contender for the most unappetising sexual encounter this side of Salò – but the film is clearly reflecting François’s own rancid self-loathing, rather than wallowing in the sordid.
François’s temper is frighteningly close to the surface, like those outwardly placid businessmen who will tear off your arm at the shoulder if you jostle their Telegraph on the morning commute. Lotz is such a lucid actor that we would pick up on this even without his character’s visit to the doctor, where he is gently reminded how to keep his anger in check. “I haven’t lost control,” he protests, his words sore with scar tissue from past outbursts. The scene is muted, like the whole film, but you would need to be unconscious not to detect the sound of gnashing and churning.
Discovering that we have been looking through those eyes during the film’s first sequence induces at first a horrified shiver, like waking up to find you’ve been sharing your bed with a monster. It gets worse. François dominates every moment; if he’s not in a scene, we’re looking at it through his eyes: the camera keeps imprisoning us in that poisoned perspective, making us complicit in the manipulative plans he hatches to get what he wants. Nothing else intrudes. It’s less like sleeping with a monster than being physically possessed by one.
Films that attempt to immerse the viewer in a character’s warped psychology are ten a penny but Beauty is one of the most persuasive examples. It would be overrating the picture to put it in the company of Vertigo or Taxi Driver but it has more in common with the intoxicating, expressionistic style of those works than it does with superficial character studies such as the recent Shame or Michael. Everything in the film feeds into its central thesis of the malignancy of repression; there has been no more articulate cinematic study of the nature of homophobia.
Ben Ludik’s score suggests the gentler parts of Pino Donaggio’s work for Brian De Palma in movies such as Carrie and Dressed to Kill, the difference being that in Beauty the musical calm never builds to a storm; there’s no crescendo, no release. The film keeps a lid on its horrors. After everything finally boils over, that lid simply goes back on and the whole miserable cycle is ready to start again.