‘Cuckold’: TIFF Review
A man struggles to pull himself together after his wife leaves him in this Johannesburg-set feature from South African actor-director Charlie Vundla.
Rarely are characters as unintentionally off-putting as the lead in Cuckold, whose marital woes are dissected to comprehensively dull effect in this second feature from South African filmmaker Charlie Vundla. That the protagonist is played by the director himself is both cause for concern and intuitively right: as a study in destructive solipsism made unbearable by proximity, Cuckold neatly mimics the effect its central character has on those closest to him. The threesome powering this studiously phlegmatic character study – a burnt-out academic, his high school chum and his ex-wife – are housebound for most of the film, whose prospects beyond festival play look just as restricted.
The question is not why anybody would cheat on Smanga (Vundla) but why anybody would tolerate him in the first place. As arrogant as he is self-pitying, he spends his days stewing in a trough of apathy and resentment after his wife (Tsotsi’s Terry Pheto) leaves him for another man. He smokes weed, knocks back pills like candy, watches porn on his laptop, orders hookers direct to his empty house, and frequently passes out blotto in the bath. A smashed photo of his ex remains beside the bed.
Drinking alone one night at a bar he is insistently befriended by John (Louis Roux), who claims the pair went to high school together and helpfully fills us in on Smanga’s background (“the youngest black professor in the country, eh – impressive”). John’s chumminess (not to mention his knowledge of Smanga’s c.v.) seems distinctly off-key; an impression confirmed when he pokes through his sleeping host’s things the morning after. More dubious still, John describes himself as a life coach and motivational speaker. The stage seems set for a slowly unraveling psychodrama, but it never materializes. John merely joins in the dissipation, cooking dinner for Smanga, smoking dope and drinking beer. It’s about as enervating to watch as it sounds.
Vundla’s first film, How to Steal Two Million, traded in some of the same concerns – principally, with male friendship colliding with jealous rivalry – but was bogged down by leaden dialogue and blankly literal performances. The closest Cuckold comes to that film’s genre hook is in the swiftly escalating sniping between Smanga and his wife’s new beau, who is introduced confronting Smanga in his driveway, who promptly produces a gun. Luckily John has emptied the bullets, an act of charity towards his unstable confrere that sees him summarily kicked out. Smanga tracks him down a few days later, sleeping in his car, and offers him a roof and a bed by way of thanks.
John kips down in the nursery, built pre-emptively before the break-up. “I thought I could will a baby into existence”, Smanga tells John, in case we didn’t quite get it. Background information is not so much drip-fed as doled out in intermittent torrents, often concurrent with the script’s hesitant stabs at humor. Smanga’s a professor of paleoanthropology, he tells John – “and that doesn’t mean I study dinosaurs, okay!” He’s prone to smugly dogmatic defensiveness, as when John asks if he was sent packing for lecturing drunk and he retorts, “I’ve got it under control, thank you!” When his ex turns up battered and bruised and professing her still-burning love, he tells John “I want you both to stay. I know it’s very French”. That beneficence palls quickly enough, and soon Smanga’s banning phone calls after seven o’clock. He and John also become pot dealers, in a subplot swiftly left by the wayside, while his wife’s embittered ex-lover continues to irritate, daubing ‘CUCKOLD’ over the front gate.
Vundla’s ear is as tinny as it was in his debut, and the ménage à trois towards which the film motors (or rather, sputters) is too tacit to be involving; off-screen and abstract in its particulars. DP Nicolaas Hofmeyr’s work mainly consists of a series of close-ups, and is as drably unvarying as the lives playing out onscreen. Vundla ends on the only moment of genuine tension in the film, but one whose merciful conclusion is not, by that point, the reckoning one roots for.
Production Companies: House Rising Pictures, Siascope
Cast: Charlie Vundla, Louis Roux, Terry Pheto
Writer/Director: Charlie Vundla
Producers: Charlie Vundla, Jeremy Nathan, Moroba Nkawe
Director of Photography: Nicolaas Hofmeyr
Art Director: Tebogo Tsokodubane
Editor: Garreth Fradgely
Production Manager: Neo Baloyi
Sound Recordist: Gita Cerveira
Sound Designer: Jim Petrak
Sales: Jeremy Nathan
18A, 95 minutes