Cinema has endured through the years not because it’s a good time, or because it’s a concise, closed method of storytelling. The format endures because of its innate flexibility, utilizing sound and visuals with the natural storytelling techniques of writers and directors that allows for interpretations and re-interpretations of the very same ideas that shape our other art forms. Not to say it is hierarchically “better” or worse than literature, prose, poetry or illustrated artwork, but it is no less durable. This partly serves as the reason why filmmakers and audiences remain drawn to the dramatized lives of artists, such as Ingrid Jonker, the poet at the heart of “Black Butterflies,” as the subject matter allows the medium to penetrate both creator and creation.
Jonker, a white Afrikaner, grew into an unprecedented upbringing underneath her father Abraham, a staunch apartheid ally and member of Parliament in the late ’50s and early ’60s. While Abraham extolled the virtues of a separatist lifestyle, Ingrid embraced a more liberal view towards her surroundings. The delicate nature of her own contradiction was living a life of privilege while remaining an outsider to both her father and the suffering masses. This was reflected through her work, poetry that served as a pinprick to the accusatory finger of Abraham and his administration. The issue with such direct insubordination, however, is that Abraham is also chairman of the committee of censorship for the arts.
The most vivid way to understand cinematic antagonists is to realize they’re merely trying to keep their house in order, and Abraham, prejudices or none, has a responsibility to keep his job and his country moving smoothly. “Black Butterflies” never shifts organically from a story about drama into a story with drama, and director Pamela van der Oest refuses the ample opportunities to place the audience in this man’s shoes. His opposition against his daughter isn’t self-preservation, nor is it a struggle of ideals, but rather the function of a cruel man with noted disdain for his daughter’s interest. Emotionally it works; it won’t be hard to find an audience member who has felt slighted in their life’s work by a family member. But with such rich stakes, it represents an emotional shortcut, particularly with Abraham played by the fiery, volatile Rutger Hauer.
Jonker is also brought to life by a powerful actor, in this case the exceptional Carice Van Houten of “Black Book.” Steely and beautiful, Van Houten has the interrupted edge of a chipped pearl, brittle but with a sense of danger. Consistently defeated by her surroundings, the film’s Ingrid is placed through the emotional wringer, trapped in relationships that test her emotions and her allegiance to her art. She is haunted, her search for paternal acceptance leading her into the arms of more forceful, wizened men.
The film is sadly never matched to the level of Van Houten’s intensity, nor does it do much for Jonker’s poetry. The pleasure of film capturing the intensity of the prose written by “the South African Sylvia Plath” is lost as the picture never engages in languid prose over didactic biopic moviemaking. Films about artists persist, but filmmakers lack the ego to sublimate and heavily incorporate the idea of a differing artform. At the opportunity to use Jonker’s words to paint a mosiac, van der Oest attempts to draw a perfect straight line from the art to the artist, as if all artistic inspiration comes from a succession of saying “Eureka.”
“Black Butterflies” is very naturally drawn to the beauty of Van Houten’s face and figure, but also to the lust inspired by her struggles and her partners. The movie’s Ingrid mixes her torrid affairs with a breakdown and a stay at a psychiatric institute, spiking her sexual encounters with a sense of danger that keeps the film uncomfortably (and sometimes comfortably) heated. The picture stakes its tone in the words of Miss Jonker, but seems far more at ease with ripping open shirts as bodies, like waves, collapse into each other on the beach. It’s an intense, mostly effective approach, but the film simply can’t decide whether it’s the passion for the pen, or the hunger for the flesh that properly motivates Jonker, trapping the film in an endless loop of melodrama. [C+]