First a Luchino Visconti film, then an opera, a BBC radio broadcast, and even a ballet – Thomas Mann’s heartbreaking novella Death in Venice gets translated to the silver screen once again in 2011 with Oliver Hermanus’ steadily paced Beauty. Putting much more emphasis on the exact nature of the protagonist’s sexuality than Mann did, Hermanus portrays his middle-aged FranÃ§ois (Deon Lotz) as a seedy, pitiful closet case whose sexual repression provokes despicable actions. There is some ambiguity to the film’s overall implications, but it’s difficult to forgive its one-sided representation of homosexuality as a borderline pedophilic affliction. Not to mention that every object of desire in Beauty is of the youthful and chiseled variety, promoting the stereotype of superficiality that plagues the community. Objectionable content aside, the film does have some formal pluses that warrant attention.
The film opens in what seems to be a wedding reception – the camera rolls in a creeping pan that only settles when it lands on a handsome young man by the name of Christian (Charlie Keegan). This shot cuts to a reverse shot of a middle-aged, bald, AurÃ©lien Recoing-doppleganger named FranÃ§ois. After a few cuts back and forth from FranÃ§ois’ gaze to our objective gaze of his ogling, Christian’s eyes finally meet FranÃ§ois’, to which FranÃ§ois immediately turns away. In these first few moments, the entire dynamic between FranÃ§ois and Christian – and more importantly: FranÃ§ois’s private life and his public life – becomes perfectly clear (the potentiality for incest arises when Christian calls FranÃ§ois uncle, but it’s a nickname that FranÃ§ois rejects. There is no blood relation).
The details of FranÃ§ois’s homosexuality come to light throughout the first act. One sequence unfolds by showing a group of 40-50 year old buddies chilling out over some brewskies – perhaps before hitting the driving range or a titty bar. But before anyone has a chance to bust out a Monopoly board, the guys are paired up together in a large room having an orgy. The room’s centrepiece is a television set playing a porno with an awfully young-looking twink getting pounded. A few shots earlier, one of the men was scolded for bringing in a flamboyant, dark-skinned boy. “No faggots, no coloureds,” cried one of them. And away he went.
As Mann penned it in his original text, the protagonist is not necessarily gay – he’s merely lustful toward youth. As his infatuation is for someone who is of the same sex, one could surmise that he desires the young man as an incarnation of his past self, yielding a reading that is more in line with narcissism than anything else. Hermanus’ reworking builds the lead to be, without question, a gay man. Thus, the psychology we’re working with is one of repression: How does a man act when he knows he is gay, but – for whatever reason – then lives his entire life pretending he isn’t? If narcissism becomes a factor, it is a supplement to the character’s homosexuality. This isn’t a film about what made FranÃ§ois stay in closet, but rather what happens when he no longer fits in it. The answer, for FranÃ§ois at least, is quite grim.
Where Beauty crosses the line, unfortunately, is in its representation of FranÃ§ois’ scenario as one that is universal. This isn’t just a character study about how one repressed man misbehaves. Rather, through its stereotyped sketch of its subject, who has the familiar look of a skeazy kiddie-porn ringleader, and his exclusive yearning for someone who could be the cover boy for any given Play Girl magazine, the film becomes about the misbehaviour of closeted gay men as a rule. There aren’t any representations of gay men who overcame the plight of repression, nor any who wouldn’t mind seeing someone his own age, or without a pristine physique. They’re all unsympathetic, and, as this movie suggests, perhaps rapists. It’s an irresponsible representation of a minority that no amount of formal daring or superlative performances (this film is competent in both of those departments) can disguise.
Reviewed on September 12th at the 2011 Toronto Int. Film Festival – Contemporary World Cinema