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.