Movie Review: Skoonheid / Beauty

Skoonheid (Beauty)is a movie about South-African ‘Boer’ Francois van Heerden who forms an unhealthy obsession with his attractive, twenty-something nephew. The viewer follows Francois as he lives his frustrating life: saddled with a woman and a daughter he does not seem to particularly care for, working at the wood mill he owns, occasionally hooking up with other closeted gay men in the area for what is depicted as very mundane and depressing group sex. We see that he feels disconnected: both from his family life and from gay men who are open about their sexuality. The viewer gets a knot in his stomach watching his awkward attempts to get closer to his nephew, knowing that this is going to end badly for one or both of them.

Skoonheid is interesting and has a complex central character who holds you attention even as he ultimately repulses, but the movie is agonizingly slow. I checked my watch twice to see how close Skoonheid was getting to the end of its advertised 105 minutes runtime, which is not a good sign. When painting a mood picture, rather than putting together a heavily plotted piece, it’s not always clear when you’re ‘done’, because structure doesn’t provide much in the way of guidance. In this case, less would have been more: there are scenes that seem to hit the same notes a few too many times. Despite this, the movie manages to stay narratively vague: even though we are observing Francois up close and personal, what is going through his mind remains a mystery at some crucial points. And it’s not just what’s happening in his mind that is sometimes unclear. There are a few ambiguous scenes at the end of the movie, that leave you guessing as to what is actually going on because you are deliberately not being given complete information.

Art-house movies sometimes get a bad rep for being boring and pretentious and up to a certain point, Skoonheid is guilty of these sins. But it offers up an interesting character study and gives more food for thought than your average generic blockbuster. Its open-to-interpretation later scenes may frustrate, but it’s worth seeing once. And then likely never again.

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