Thursday, March 01, 2012

Black Butterflies: Madness and Apartheid

Ingrid Jonker was on the right side of history. Unfortunately, she was nearly impossible to live with. Often dubbed the “South African Sylvia Plath,” her Afrikaans verse passionately condemned Apartheid, but her inner demons would eventually prove fatal. Though undeniably a symbol of white South African dissent, Jonker’s deep emotional turmoil trumps the social strife of her times in Paula van der Oest’s bio-drama, Black Butterflies (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Jonker and her father were never close, nor did they ever agree on much. It was only after the death of her guardian grandmother that Jonker met the father whom her late mother had walked away from just before her birth. While even as a child she exhibited precocious poetic talent, Abraham Jonker served as a hardline state censor. Clearly, conflict between them would be inevitable.

Conversely, the novelist Jack Cope would look like an excellent match for Jonker, at least on paper. Both were liberal Afrikaans writers with children who were in the process of divorcing their spouses. They certainly meet under fortuitous circumstances, when Cope saves her from drowning. Indeed, they quickly become an item, but it is not long before Jonker’s erratic behavior undermines their relationship. Needy does not begin to describe her, nor does faithfulness.

While Cope adamantly ends their affair, he stops short of cutting ties altogether. In fact, it is the novelist and a mutual literary friend who package Jonker’s breakthrough collection while she is institutionalized. Through their efforts, her poem “The Dead Child of Nyanga” (which Mandela would read at his inauguration) would be published and duly censored (by her father).

Rather than revisiting Apartheid era non-controversies yet again, Butterflies is much more a portrait of the artist as profoundly disturbed woman. Yet, this is actually quite a legitimate biographical-cinematic strategy. While the film provides plenty of reminders of Apartheid’s unjust nature, its depiction of Jonker’s mental illness is often quite harrowing and more visceral. It is also arguably far more relevant for contemporary audiences.

Carice van Houten gives a truly brave performance, portraying a cultural icon coming apart at the emotional seams. Frequently self-destructive and often unsympathetic, it hardly constitutes hagiography, but it is true to her troubled life. However, the real lynchpin of the film is Liam Cunningham’s rock solid turn as Cope, making him a fully-dimensional flesh-and-blood human being. Though we can anticipate the tragedy that will result, we can never blame him for ending his involvement with Jonker. Frankly, it is hard to see any what else he could have done under the circumstances. While Cope benefits from Cunningham’s nuance, Rutger Hauer plays Abraham Jonker as a stone cold villain, but in his defense, this seems to essentially match the historical record.

Despite its serious subject matter, Butterflies never feels preachy, thanks to van der Oest’s intimate focus. Though certainly celebrating her artistic integrity, her film never whitewashes the tragic nature of her life. Several cuts above standard bio-pic fare, Buterflies is definitely worth seeing when it opens tomorrow (3/2) at the Cinema Village.