A version of this review appeared in The Age, August 2, 2012.
Few anti-heroes in cinema can be as off-putting yet pitiful as François (Deon Lotz), the middle-aged sawmill owner at the centre of this second feature from the young South African director Oliver Hermanus. Married and outwardly conservative, François leads a double life that involves meeting up in a secret rural location for sex with other men. None of these men identify as gay; on the contrary, open homosexuals are strictly excluded from proceedings, along with non-whites.
There's no hint of beauty, physical or otherwise, in the way Hermanus presents these orgies: the men seem reduced to joyless parts of a machine, like the mainly black workers in François's mill. Lonely and isolated, François seems caught in a trap of his own making – while his wife (Michelle Scott) has found her own way of coping with a sexless marriage.
New possibilities come into focus when François discovers his ideal love object in the son of an old friend: Christian (Charlie Keegan), a handsome law student and part-time model. Eventually, François follows the younger man to Cape Town, where his obsession gets out of hand with disastrous results.
As a study of how repression and hypocrisy can lead to madness, the film has a universal meaning. But it also paints a picture of South Africa as a land where all the old prejudices are alive and well, whether they relate to class, race, sexuality or gender. Hope lies with the free-spirited Christian and his ability to step across boundaries, which the film associates with the post-apartheid generation in general (it hardly matters if the character is gay or straight).
Lotz gives a nuanced performance in a very difficult role, and Hermanus is plainly a talented director: he uses point-of-view shots with careful economy, keeping us “inside” François' perspective while still letting us see his character as puzzling and alien. Equal attention is given to the lighting. Many of the interior scenes are deliberately drab: when François arrives at his Cape Town hotel room and lets the sun shine through a window, there's an instant sense of relief.
For all its assurance, Beauty is not an enjoyable film to watch. The schematic story offers limited intellectual rewards, and some viewers will consider the gruelling climax too high a price to pay. Still, if Hermanus can maintain his steady gaze at unpleasant realities, he has an interesting career ahead.