Oliver Hermanus' Queer Palm winning drama is tense, quietly sad and yes, beautiful.
The very slow pan and zoom that opens Oliver Hermanus' Beauty, tracking the errant gaze of protagonist François van Heerden (Deon Lotz), ends on what the film's title promises, although perhaps not quite in the way you'd expect.
Wealthy, white, middle-aged François may be a pillar of Bloemfontein life, quite literally furnishing his community's very foundations with the wood that his timber processing business produces. And he may be surveying the guests at a reception for his own daughter's wedding – an institution that enshrines generational continuity.
But François' eyes come to rest not on the bridal party, nor on his own wife of many years Elena (Michelle Scott), but rather on handsome young Christian Roodt (Charlie Keegan).
The son of one of François' oldest friends, Christian is a Cape Town law student with a side-line in TV modeling. His youth and good looks hold an attraction that threatens to unravel the respectability that François has constructed over many years around himself and his family.
For François leads a repressed life, hiding his drinking from others, struggling to hold in check a deep, potentially explosive anger, and keeping his homosexuality secret from everyone except a small ring of like-minded, aging Afrikaners whom he meets occasionally in a secluded farmhouse for awkward, guilt-tinged orgies.
"No faggots, no coloureds," the orgy's host declares as he turns away a guest who has brought along a young, black lover. It is a rule which suggests not only this group's own state of profound denial, but also their continued adherence to the values of Apartheid – values now as old and ugly as the sagging, sweaty, flabby flesh that mingles at their private get-togethers.
Little wonder, then, that François is drawn to Christian, whose youth, easy metrosexuality, lack of prejudice and embrace of the English language all make him the very embodiment of the new South Africa. Confused by the signals that Christian sends him, François begins stalking the object of his affections, even following him to Cape Town.
And then, on one long dark night of frustrated yearning and self-loathing, François makes his move, in a sequence that quivers with tensions that are far more than merely sexual, cutting to the conflicts within this troubled man and his nation.
Winner of the Queer Palm at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, Beauty plays out like a relocated 'Death in Venice', although it is not so much the voyeuristic protagonist, as the ancien régime that he represents, which is sick and dying here.
François' closeted inability either fully to embrace what he desires, or indeed to move with the times, marks him out as a tragic figure, caught between his own history and a future where he will always, as in the opening scene and indeed the final sequence too, be relegated to watching other people's happiness from the sidelines, while he himself pays the price for keeping his identity – and the shame that it brings him – hushed up.
The subject matter is difficult, even confronting, but DoP Jamie Ramsay's wide-angled lensing, maintaining a cool distance from what it observes as much as François does, brings to this film its own austere, aching beauty.
Good festival buzz.
Voyeurism, stalking, repression, obsession – everything a good cinephile needs.
This queered state of a nation is tense, quietly sad and yes, beautiful.