Rebecca Paul struggles with the recently acclaimed release.
It’s difficult to know what to make of this film. It dips between mildly engaging, melancholic and shockingly brutal and left me pondering gay cinema and what it’s really about.
Francois is a middle-aged husband running a relatively successful timber business in South Africa. He is tormented with his sexuality as he drunkenly stumbles through sordid and debauched private outings which he later fervently laments. The film opens with him having married off one of his daughters. The panoramic, voyeuristic direction immediately establishes his fascination with his stunningly beautiful ‘nephew’ Christian as he intently gazes upon him from across the room at the reception.
Much of the film is shot this way, silently or accompanied by ominous muted tones as our protagonist struggles with his alienation from the lives of those around him. He stands still and alone, his glassy stare devouring his seemingly happy surroundings. Christian, on the other hand, is animated, sexy and effortlessly charming to all he meets. It’s not difficult to see how Francois can never be part of Christian’s world but Beauty follows his attempts to do so.
As a result, there’s a cumulative intensity to the events. Characters’ faces are depicted closely, through unchanging angles that linger longer than feels comfortable. As such, the tension becomes, at times, unbearable.
Despite this, the pace of the film feels too slow and when we finally arrive at the truly shocking and brutal climax, it is terrifying to watch. I’m loathed to go too much into the scene itself but our reaction (certainly mine) is that of severe discomfort at the visceral callousness of the violence that suddenly fills the screen. This would be fine if the story had engaged or aroused any strong empathy but up to this point, it has not yet managed to do so. Characters are fundamentally uninteresting and unexplained so there’s little sense of understanding at this sudden plot twist.
For me, Beauty fails because it paints a formulaic portrait of the gay man struggling to come to terms with his sexuality and offers nothing more. It seems the director deems the struggle interesting enough without going to any lengths to colour his characters. For this reason the story has become boring, which is a shame. Surely there are countless aspects of homosexuality which are just waiting to be explored. Are we not tired of this particular journey of repressed sexuality? Personally, I’m ready for something a little more meaty and I would suggest gay audiences may feel the same.
What’s worse, following the climax, the plot releases its grip on the viewer and becomes stale. The event in question is glossed over, nothing is explained, there is no transformation and in fact, Christian disappears entirely. Beauty fails to offer any explanation or understanding of the characters’ behaviour that it has so eagerly followed.
Watching Beauty, I am unsatisfied. I wonder that maybe I find the plot boring where others will be fascinated. I yearn for more complexity, more understanding and more thoughtfulness about homosexuality in cinema. One need only watch the emotionally charged and socially relevant Milk to see that homosexuality is capable of being part of powerful and relevant cinema.