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Stars: Deon Lotz, Charlie Keegan, Sue Diepeveen, Roeline Daneel, Albert Maritz and Michelle Scott.
Writer: Oliver Hermanus and Didier Costet.
Director: Oliver Hermanus.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL Screenings – Sun 10 Jun 8.30pm; Mon 11 Jun 8.15pm.

Rating: 4/5

Repression is a key theme in Oliver Hermanus’ Beauty and one made all the more potent by the production’s homeland, South Africa. The story of a white, middle-class businessman who has structured his life so that he may live out his homosexuality in a private shame, the sophomore feature from the director of the acclaimed Shirley Adams is an intensely-focussed, gruelling drama.

The ambiguously-titled film tells of a human forced to live an unacceptable reality in the eyes of the society he has created. The misguided sense of entitlement that still simmers for much of older white South Africa in the nation’s post-apartheid era infuses Beauty. As the brawny, steely-eyed Francois, leading man Deon Lotz is an archetypal Afrikaan alpha-male; his generation has already experienced a tide of social change that has robbed him of an aspect his people’s defining history, albeit a shameful one. That Francois must also hide his sexuality is a further denial of his true self and soon, the tenuous grip he has of the personal and professional facade he maintains daily begins to slip.

With his bald, bony pate and intense stare, shadowed under a prominent eyebrow ridge, Lotz’s Francois is a Silverback gorilla of a man. The boundaries he enforces over every aspect of his compartmentalized existence is maintained with fierce clarity. His marriage to Elena (Michelle Scott) is one of superficial suburban routine (she has her own sexual secrets); his disdain for his daughter Anika (Roeline Daneel) and her youthful freedom is plainly obvious. His indulgence is a weekly get-together at a remote property with other like-minded closeted men, where they indulge in manly banter and beer-drinking before sessions of rough sex.

Francois’ life changes when he becomes infatuated with dashing law student Christian (Charlie Keegan), the son of a family friend whom he glimpses at a wedding in the film’s stunning opening sequence. As his life becomes entirely about stalking Christian, Francois’ tightly-bound existence and the psychological rigidity that life demands begins to unravel. When his repressed state finally emerges, it is as a sickening act of sexual violence that is certain to leave faint-hearted viewers shaken (several hardened critics looked away at the preview screening that SCREEN-SPACE attended; the film’s hopes of gaining wider, non-festival exposure sans censorship cuts are slim).

Hermanus and his cinematographer Jamie Ramsay find much that is beautiful in Beauty. Long, still shots of Lotz in close-up are unusually serene, or at least until the sense of predation and its inevitable outcome become dominant; the framing reflects the control Francois exerts to maintain his life.

The final scenes suggest a degree of pity for the man, that had he followed a path truer to his real self he may have lived a fuller, happier life. Hermanus is asking a lot of his audience to recognise remorse in Francois and understanding in our view of him, but the young director is clearly not above taking bold risks that demand consideration. Beauty is a confronting work that succeeds as a study of a false life lived badly and as a reflection upon a society grasping at traditional views to its own detriment.

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