Black Butterflies: Film Review

Captivating, classical biopic about the “South African Sylvia Plath.”

Paula van der Oest’s biopic of South African poet Ingrid Jonker is conventional yet captivating thanks in large part to a terrific lead performance from Carice van Houten.

TAORMINA — The life of poet Ingrid Jonker, whose short but intense existence would later make her known as the “South African Sylvia Plath,” is given the polished biopic treatment in Paula van der Oest’s Black Butterflies. Conventional yet captivating thanks in large part to a terrific lead performance from Carice van Houten (Black Book), the film should see broad arthouse play after nabbing prizes in Tribeca and Taormina.

Jonker (van Houten) committed suicide in 1965 at the age of 31, leaving behind her a collection of Afrikaans-language poems, one of which (“Die Kind”) was read by Nelson Mandela during his opening address to the first South African democratic parliament. Although her poetry was often more personal than political, it reflected many of her fellow writers’ (who formed a group known as “Die Sestigers”) opposition to the apartheid regime in place. This sentiment was further complicated (and magnified) by the fact that Jonker’s father, Abraham (Rutger Hauer), was a Member of Parliament responsible for censoring books like those written by his daughter.

Retracing Jonker’s story from the time she leaves her first husband to settle down in Cape Town up until her death around five years later, the script by Greg Latter (Goodbye Bafana) focuses predominantly on the poet’s troubled ties with her dad, and her turbulent love affair with Jack Cope (Liam Cunningham), a swarthy novelist who was twenty years her senior. In the second instance, what begins as amour fousoon enough shifts to the fouside, as the ever-unsatisfied Ingrid is unable to remain in a monogamous couple, and following an abortion is interned for severe depression.

If Jack is never depicted as the key to her heart, he and writer Ulys Krige (Graham Clarke) open up Ingrid’s vision to the suffering of South Africa’s black population, who are quartered in ghettos where they cannot leave without an official pass. When Ingrid witnesses the death of a little boy at the hands of government police, it prompts her to write “Die Kind,” whose first line, “The child is not dead,” reveals how well she could marry social commentary with expressive language. Assembled into the collection “Smoke and Ochre,” the poem puts an end to Ingrid’s relationship with her father, causing her to slide further into a funk from which she’ll never recover.

More or less chronologically told, the narrative jumps systematically from Ingrid’s tumultuous lifestyle to writing scenes where she literally scribbles her thoughts on the walls, and like many a biopic of an author it attempts to show how her work resulted from personal experience. Although such a choice is rather obvious and never really does justice to the poems themselves, van Houten so well embodies the seductive madness of her character that the film remains altogether engrossing. Hauer provides a powerfully restrained turn as Abraham. Even if the scenes between he and van Houten are unfortunately limited, they’re filled with sheer emotional energy.

Directing with a smooth academic style, van der Oest (the Oscar-nominated Zus & zo) faithfully depicts the sights and scents of 1960s Cape Town, where Ingrid indulges in plenty of champagne and frolicking before becoming aware of the disturbing world around her. Superb widescreen cinematography by Giulio Biccari (The Breed) jumps between hot to cool colors, reflecting the poet’s changing moods as well as her many evocations of sea and sun.

Venue: Taormina Film Festival
Production companies: IDTV Film, Cool Beans, Comet Film, Spier Films
Cast: Carice van Houten, Liam Cunningham, Rutger Hauer, Graham Clarke, Nicholas Pauling, Candice D’Arcy
Director: Paula van der Oest
Screenwriter: Greg Latter
Producers: Frans van Gestel, Richard Claus, Michael Auret, Arry Voorsmit
Executive producer: Arnold Heslenfeld
Director of photography: Giulio Biccari
Production designer: Darryl Hammer
Music: Philip Miller
Costume designer: Rae Donnelly
Editor: Sander Vos
Sales Agent: Bavaria Film International
No rating, 98 minutes