×

Black Butterflies

The uncompromising power of Ingrid Jonker's poetry runs like a pulsing vein through "Black Butterflies."

With:
With: Carice van Houten, Liam Cunningham, Rutger Hauer, Graham Clarke, Nicholas Pauling, Candice D'Arcy, Ceridwen Morris, Thamsanqua Mbongo. (English dialogue)

The uncompromising power of Ingrid Jonker’s poetry runs like a pulsing vein through “Black Butterflies,” a 1960s-set drama whose several strong points include the angry intensity of Carice van Houten’s fearless perf. Highly intelligent, brilliantly thesped English-language entry from Dutch helmer Paula van der Oest (“Zus and Zo”) never entirely escapes the curse of the hindsight-driven biopic, particularly with the “South African Sylvia Plath” analogy hanging over its heroine’s doomed head. Nevertheless, arthouse prospects loom large for this sexy, highbrow, anti-apartheid period piece.

Like most of van der Oest’s heroines, Ingrid registers as intransigent, contradictory and unforgettable. None of her men know quite what to do with her. The two most important writers/lovers in her life complain that she “drains” them. Her father, Abraham (a chilling Rutger Hauer), a racist conservative minister heading the Censorship Board, loathes her, constantly denigrating her work and her bohemianism and granting permission for shock treatments that would still her poetic voice. If anything, Greg Latter’s script and Hauer’s nuanced interpretation soften Abraham Jonker’s callousness: Upon learning of his offspring’s death, Jonker reportedly remarked, “They can throw her back into the sea for all I care.”

Early on, Ingrid is saved from drowning by novelist Jack Cope (Liam Cunningham, quietly commanding as in “Hunger” and “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”). Their tumultuous relationship becomes the film’s romantic lodestone, as Jack constantly picks up the pieces after Ingrid’s father has shattered her.

Ingrid swings from one mood to another sans any boundaries or perspective, as Jack struggles with her open sexuality and emotional neediness. A caring mother to daughter Simone (portrayed by a succession of actresses from infancy to young girlhood), Ingrid is periodically driven to drink and neglect. Though institutionalized at various stages, she only clearly manifests madness in her tendency to repeatedly seek affection and validation from her father, the one person guaranteed to withhold them.

As in “Black Book,” van Houten never shies away from the excesses and sometimes downright unlikability of her character, investing the role with a ferocious willfulness that often mistakes its object. To the credit of both van Houten and van der Oest, the poet is perceived as never being quite equal to her genius, which emerges despite the limitations of her conscious mind.

Though refusing to paint her protagonist in a simplistically heroic light, van der Oest still subscribes to romantic biopic conventions. Despite the strong political bent of Jonker’s work, apartheid possesses little reality in the film beyond the poetess’ relation to it. Her clandestine support of a black writer (Thamsanqua Mbongo) serves mainly to cement her relationship with Cope. Even the racially charged police shooting of a child, finding final form as the subject of the poem Nelson Mandela reads at his first parliamentary address, partly ties in with Ingrid’s guilt over a fetus she aborted.

If the township scenes feel researched and staged rather than truly inhabited, that unreality also reads as the missing dark side to the promise of bohemian freedom for which Ingrid martyrs herself.

Production values are opulent. Darryl Hammer’s lush period reconstruction looks casual and unforced, while Giulio Biccari’s lensing luxuriates in light.

Popular on Variety

Black Butterflies

Germany-Netherlands-South Africa

Production: A Bavaria Film Intl. presentation, with IDTV Film, Cool Beans, of a Comet Film, Spier Films production, in association with Riba Film Intl., supported by the Netherlands Film Fund, the Cobo Fund and NTR. (International sales: Bavaria Film Intl., Geiselgasteig, Germany.) Produced by Frans van Gestel, Richard Claus, Michael Auret, Arry Voorsmit. Executive producer, Arnold Heslenfeld. Co-producer, Marina Blok. Directed by Paula van der Oest. Screenplay, Greg Latter.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Giulio Biccari; editor, Sander Vos; music, Philip Miller; production designer, Darryl Hammer; costume designer, Rae Donnelly; sound (Dolby SR), Dieter Keck; sound designer, Barry Donnelly; visual effects supervisor, Jeremy Hattingh; casting, Christa Schamberger, Ana Feyder, Jeremy Zimmerman. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Center, New York, March 31, 2011. (In Tribeca Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 100 MIN.

With: With: Carice van Houten, Liam Cunningham, Rutger Hauer, Graham Clarke, Nicholas Pauling, Candice D'Arcy, Ceridwen Morris, Thamsanqua Mbongo. (English dialogue)

More Film

  • A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

    Film Review: 'A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon'

    No asteroids are hurtling toward Earth in “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon,” though a flying frozen pizza does softly slice the top off an elderly shopper’s hairdo: That’s roughly the level of quirky peril we’re talking about in the latest outing from Aardman Animations, and as usual, the British stop-motion masters cheerfully prove that [...]

  • Slam

    Film Review: ‘Slam’

    The disappearance of a fearless female Palestinian-Australian slam poet triggers suspense and powerful social and political commentary in “Slam,” an outstanding slow-burn thriller by expat Indian filmmaker Partho Sen-Gupta (“Sunrise”). Starring Palestinian actor Adam Bakri (“Omar,” “Official Secrets”) as the missing woman’s conflicted brother, and leading Aussie performer Rachael Blake as a troubled cop, Opening [...]

  • Igo Kantor

    Igo Kantor, Producer and Post-Production Executive, Dies at 89

    Igo Kantor, whose Hollywood career took him from Howard Hughes’ projection room to supervising post-production on “Easy Rider” and producing B-movies like “Kingdom of the Spiders” and “Mutant,” died Oct. 15. He was 89. Kantor, who was born in Vienna and raised in Lisbon, met “Dillinger” director Max Nosseck on the ship to New York. [...]

  • The Lion King

    Average Movie Ticket Price Falls 4% in Third Quarter of 2019

    Average ticket prices for the third quarter have dropped 4% to $8.93, down from Q2’s $9.26, the National Association of Theatre Owners announced today. However, compared with the third quarter of 2018, ticket price has risen 1.1% from $8.83. The summer box office is down 2.13% from 2018, though the third quarter box office is [...]

  • Tilda Swinton to Preside Over The

    Tilda Swinton to Preside Over Marrakech Film Festival

    Tilda Swinton, the iconoclastic British actress and producer, is set to preside over the 18th edition of the Marrakech International Film Festival, succeeding to American director James Gray. Swinton, who won an Oscar and a BAFTA award for best supporting actress for “Michael Clayton,” has been leading an eclectic acting career. She has collaborated with [...]

  • The King Netflix

    Middleburg Film Festival Brings Hollywood to Virginia

    For the last seven years, audiences have flocked to the Middleburg Film Festival. Running October 17th – 21st, and situated in the wine-country hills of historic Middleburg, Virg., the festival usually highlights some of the year’s buzziest titles, and 2019 is no exception. “We’re a smaller festival with fewer overall screenings than other events, so we [...]

  • Kelly McCormick and David Leitch'Fast &

    'Wheelman' Director to Helm 'Versus' From David Leitch, Kelly McCormick (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Wheelman” director Jeremy Rush is in negotiations to helm the action movie “Versus,” with Kelly McCormick and David Leitch producing. Rush will direct the Universal movie from a script penned by “Three Musketeers” scribe Alex Litvak and “American Assassin” writer Mike Finch. Plot details are being kept under wraps, though it will follow the genre [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content