Sunday, April 01, 2012

LLGFF 2012 - Kiss Me & Beauty

Kiss Me (Kyss mig)

For its release in some international territories, Alexandra-Therese Keining's Kiss Me has been renamed With Every Heartbeat, after the Robyn track that plays over the opening credits. It's hard to avoid drawing comparisons with Lukas Moodysson's Fucking Åmål, which took the much more marketable title Show Me Love and, coincidentally, was the last lesbian-themed Swedish film to make waves abroad. Keining's film is reminiscent of Moodysson's in other ways too, with its deft balance of humour and insight, and exemplary collection of ensemble performances. It charts the complicated and awkward romance between Mia (Ruth Vega Fernandez) and Frida (Liv Mjönes) in such an engaging and skilful manner, we don't really mind how rigidly it adheres to genre conventions.

At the start of the film, Mia is ready to marry her longtime boyfriend Tim (Joakim Nätterqvist), announcing her engagement at the party her father is holding to announce his own forthcoming nuptials. This is the first time that Mia has met Frida, her future stepsister, and she can't keep take her eyes off her throughout the evening. When she admonishes Tim for his flirtatious behaviour towards Frida, is it a playful jab, a sign of her own insecurity or a pang of jealousy at his close proximity to this beautiful light-hearted blonde? Keining gets a lot of mileage out of these loaded, surreptitious glances as the closeted and conflicted Mia edges towards a romance with the out Frida, and the emotional waters are muddied further by the fact that Frida is also in a relationship. The smartly balanced screenplay doesn't lose sight of the collateral pain these women will cause by following their hearts.

Kiss Me is a fairly standard and familiar romantic drama but it is elevated above its generic conventions by Ragna Jorming's great eye for composition and use of light, and love scenes that possess an honest sensuality, which is heightened by the tangible chemistry Fernandez and Mjönes share. The film is given an added dimension by the performances from Krister Henriksson and especially Lena Endre as Mia and Frida's parents, both of whom deal with revelations about their daughters' sexuality in different ways. Keining is commendably adept at handling the messy, entangled emotions of her characters, but the ending to the film feels too neat by half; a clichéd finale that might offer a satisfying sense of closure, but feels forced and conventional in a way that so much of this movie doesn't.

Beauty (Skoonheid)

The opening shot of Beauty tracks slowly through a crowd until it settles on the face of a handsome young man and stays there. When Oliver Hermanus made his debut with Shirley Adams in 2009 he favoured a nervy, handheld style, but here his approach is much more deliberate and composed, mirroring the gaze of his protagonist. François (Deon Lotz) is a middle-aged family man living in South Africa, and the object of his lingering looks across the hall at this family celebration is Christian (Charlie Keegan), the 22 year-old son of a family friend, with whom François shares a close, jovial relationship. François wants Christian, and soon this desire consumes his every action. Beauty is a study of obsession, repression and self-loathing.

François is a deeply conflicted character. He laughingly joins in with disparaging comments about "faggots" but we later see him drive out into the country to take part in an orgy with other married, middle-aged men. These men don't define themselves as homosexual, though, and one of them is admonished for bring a feminine-looking, dark-skinned boy to their gathering with the words, "No coloureds and no faggots." This clandestine meeting is the only way François and these other men can act upon their urges without the risk of being "outed" in a society where homosexuality is still a taboo issue. When it comes to Christian, all François can do is admire the object of his affection, which he does with increasing frequency throughout the film, contriving reasons for them to be together and even stalking the youngster to the beach or his college campus. Hermanus makes us party to his voyeurism through the way he uses his camera, with the use of focus and the excellent sound design placing us in François' shoes, making us share in his yearning and torment.

Beauty is built around an astonishing lead performance from Deon Lotz. Controlled and understated, he makes us fully aware of the dangerous desires raging underneath his placid surface. The film skilfully develops a tension that commands our attention as we wait for François to make his move, a tension that finally culminates in a shocking sequence that's genuinely difficult to watch. But Hermanus seems unsure about how exactly to handle the fallout from this event, and his reluctance tackle some aspects of his story head-on is frustrating. The director has spoken of his desire to make an ambiguous film, but much of Beauty feels unnecessarily opaque, particularly the final scenes in which we are left to puzzle over the nature of a phone call, a stash of money and a drive into the darkness. These niggling loose ends have the unfortunate effect of distracting out thoughts from some admirably brave filmmaking and a tremendous central performance.