A closeted married man roiling with tension develops a disturbed obsession with his friends’ son in Oliver Hermanus’ well-modulated sophomore feature, “Beauty.” In contrast with several Cannes 2011 titles, this time the object of attraction is legal, though power dynamics are very much present in the way the protag behaves toward the young man and the world — an especially South African world. Displaying satisfying progress from his award-winning debut, “Shirley Adams,” Hermanus demonstrates a firm grip on the subtleties of strong-willed folk in turmoil. “Beauty” needn’t get trapped in the gay ghetto.
Producer and co-scripter Didier Costet is also behind Brillante Mendoza’s last few titles, which means his arthouse connections could help “Beauty” find a modest spot on specialty screens, notwithstanding the difficulty of launching South African films in the international market. One relatively graphic sex scene however may make Stateside release difficult without a tiny bit of trimming.
A marvelously controlled opener signals Hermanus’ decision to privilege his lead’s voyeurism, as the camera slowly tracks through a crowded wedding party and alights on Christian (model Charlie Keegan). Though Francois (Deon Lotz) has known him for years, something about this sighting strikes a chord. Returning to Bloemfontein, in central South Africa, after his daughter’s wedding in Cape Town, Francois and wife Elena (Michelle Scott) get on with their lives, characterized by a paper-thin facade of familial contentment.
Beneath Francois’ taut manner lies an emasculated figure, an angry white man in South Africa, no longer a member of the ruling elite, maintaining his racism along with a disgust for homosexuals that barely masks his self-loathing. Francois satisfies his urges with a small group of older, like-minded closeted men, but as an outlet for his overall anxiety, these orgies don’t do the trick. Instead he pretends to go on a business trip to Cape Town, where he meets up with Christian’s parents and begins spying on the young man.
“Beauty” is an oddly generic title, especially as Christian, through the voyeuristic lensing, becomes more than merely a pretty body. Though presumably straight, his physical ease around other men, no matter their color, is an element that inspires an angry envy within Francois, who watches his obsession with the realization that Christian’s palpable comfort within himself cannot be a part of his world or generation. As Francois’ frustration builds, so too does his resentment, leading to inevitable violence.
Hermanus doesn’t dwell too much on the unhappiness of suburban life, although it’s an inescapable element that adds to Francois’ bitterness. Lotz gives a quietly intense performance, very much the observer rather than participant — a concept strikingly matched by Jamie Ramsay’s watchful lensing, handsomely shot in Scope on a Red Mysterium. Attractive lighting provides a honeyed glow to most settings and especially Christian, while Francois is lit with an appropriately steelier gleam. Sound and music are used with a sophisticated sense of counterpoint and cover.