×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

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

  • American Factory

    Tribeca Film Review: 'American Factory'

    When the last truck rolled off the assembly line of the General Motors factory outside Dayton, Ohio, filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert were there to film it, documenting the end of a certain American dream, along with the unemployment of more than 2,000 people — down from 6,000 in more prosperous times. That was [...]

  • 'Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project': Truth-Teller

    Tribeca Film Review: 'Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project'

    VHS tapes now have a weird sort of stodgy magical aura. Long ago, they were standard. With the arrival of DVD, they were behind the curve. Then they were totally outdated and unworkable (at a certain point, who besides Quentin Tarantino still had an operational VCR?). But now they’re so old they’re like mystic electromagnetic [...]

  • PLAYA VISTA, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 24:

    Shorts Encourage Women to STEAM Careers

    Straight Up Films created the anthology “Power/On” of five shorts focused on encouraging girls in STEAM (science, technology, engineering and math with the arts thrown in) directed by actresses Rosario Dawson, Julie Bowen, Ana Brenda Contreras, Lisa Edelstein, and Nikki Reed. With support from YouTube, the shorts premiered Wednesday at the Google campus in Playa [...]

  • Stefanie Sherk obit

    Stefanie Sherk, Actress and Wife to Demian Bichir, Dies at 43

    Canadian actress and model Stefanie Sherk died on April 20 of an apparent suicide by drowning. She was 43. The Los Angeles Medical Examiner-Coroner confirmed the ruling and cause of death. Sherk appeared in the TV show “CSI: Cyber” and the movie “Valentine’s Day.” She also starred in the show “The Bridge” alongside her husband [...]

  • Ron HowardBreakthrough Prize, Arrivals, NASA Ames

    Ron Howard Talks New Luciano Pavarotti Documentary

    If one is an anomaly, two are a coincidence and three are a trend, then Ron Howard might strictly become a music documentarian after “Pavarotti” hits theaters. The documentary about the world-famous Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti comes on the heels of Howard’s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week” and “Made in America,” a look at [...]

  • Mary Elizabeth Winstead

    Mary Elizabeth Winstead to Star in Netflix Assassin Thriller 'Kate' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Mary Elizabeth Winstead is set to star in the Netflix actioner “Kate,” sources tell Variety. “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan is helming from a script by Umair Aleem. The story revolves around a female assassin, who, after being poisoned and given less than 24 hours to live, must go on a manhunt through [...]

  • Shannon Hoon

    Blind Melon Frontman's Home Movies Captivate in Tribeca Doc 'All I Can Say'

    For a period of five years, Blind Melon frontman Shannon Hoon diligently chronicled his own life, videotaping himself with a Hi-8 video camera through every step of his musical journey — starting out in Indiana, through his meteoric rise to alt-rock icon, up to the day of his death in 1995. These captivating moments finally [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content