Reviewed at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival
Black Butterflies is an uneasy meshing of sex drama, political tract, and father/daughter melodrama; it tries to do everything, and does nothing well. It is ostensibly a biography of Ingrid Jonker, the South African poet whose most famous piece was read aloud by Nelson Mandela in his first speech to South Africa's first democratic parliament in 1991. Director Paula van der Oest plays that Mandela audio at the end of the film; it gives the picture a credibility that it otherwise doesn't earn. Until then, it's basically a pretentious bore.
The primary action covers the last five years of Jonker's life, from 1960 to 1965. A vibrant and sexy young woman (as played by Carice van Houten, anyway), she meets novelist Jack Cope (Liam Cunningham) on a beach in Capetown and, in spite of the fact that she's still married ("I left him," she says, "but he hasn't fully grasped it yet"), they begin an intense affair. Their sex life is a primary point of interest; van der Oest slathers those scene with a string score, so we know they're tasteful.
Jonker's father Abraham (Rutger Hauer) is a member of South African parliament--ironically enough, he's the country's head censor. Their clashes are defined early, in an awkward family dinner entirely free of subtext; everything is right on the nose. He hisses at her, "I know who you are. You are your mother." She snaps back: "Is that why you hate me?" The walls of her childhood room are covered in poetry scrawls; Cope comes to comfort her there, and they go at it again. Van der Oest intercuts their sex with her words on the wall; it's so self-consciously artsy, it's almost embarrassing.
About 30 minutes in, Jonker suddenly turns into a shrieking, unreasonable shrew, screaming at Cope and heaving items at him; it comes out of nowhere and bears no relation to the character we've spent the first quarter of the picture with. And then it's just as quickly forgotten--another poetic interlude, another sex scene, and there you go. But it establishes the cycle that the film will then follow: things go well for Jonker, then someone slights her, and then she goes crazy. She spins further out of control, goes to hospitals, turns suicidal.
The trouble is, by the end of the film, we're simply tired of her. She's an insufferable protagonist--but not in a compelling or even diverting way. She's just a brat. A gifted brat, perhaps, but not enough that we care about her, or the soap opera entanglements and breakaways of her and Cope or her other beaus. We need not always have a likable or sympathetic lead, particularly in biographical films (see the finest biopic ever made, Raging Bull). But in lieu of that, we must have a filmmaker with something interesting to tell us about that character, or their time. Here, the Apartheid politics are mostly window dressing--which is too bad, since the moments when they move to the center (like the passport protest that quickly spins out of control) have a raw, jittery power.
Black Butterflies is often quite visually striking; the locations are gorgeous, and there's a great moment that finds Jonker pushing her daughter on a swing set, the sun setting behind them, her bags next to her, with nowhere to go. But, in spite of the plentiful nudity, there's not much happening of interest. It's handsomely mounted, painfully sincere, and just dull as toast.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.