By Don Simpson | July 15, 2012
Director: Paula van der Oest
Writer: Greg Latter
Starring: Carice van Houten, Liam Cunningham, Rutger Hauer, Candice D’Arcy, Grant Swanby, Graham Clarke, Ceridwen Morris, Jennifer Steyn, Damon Berry, Sabrina Oschmann, Marthinus Van den Berg, Nicholas Pauling
Like most great artists, Ingrid Jonker (Carice van Houten) achieved worldwide recognition almost 30 years after her suicide. It was Nelson Mandela who catapulted Jonker to fame when he read one of her poems during the opening of South Africa’s first democratic parliament in 1994. It was a fitting tribute to Jonker, who opposed the apartheid regime in South Africa and was committed to the struggle for human rights and democracy.
Jonker’s political stance is exponentially radical considering that her father (Rutger Hauer) is a National Party Member of the South African Parliament who chairs the committee responsible for censorship laws on art, publications and entertainment. It is difficult to determine what comes first, Jonker’s rebellious political stance or her daddy issues. Jonker is an embarrassment to her father; the father and daughter often air their political differences in the public spotlight. Jonker’s father publicly condemns her anti-Apartheid writing and eventually disowns her.
Paula van der Oest’s Black Butterflies makes it very clear that Jonker’s volcanic relationship with her father contributes to the fragility of her psyche. It is not without reason that Jonker is considered to be South Africa’s Sylvia Plath. Jonker pours emotion into her poetry with reckless abandon, but her inability to curtail her emotions also leads her to hurt the ones she loves. Early in the film, Jonker falls in love with writer Jack Cope (Liam Cunningham) after he saves her from drowning; then she proceeds to recklessly carry on affairs and break his heart. It is as if she has too much love to share with only one person, or she just cannot get enough love no matter how hard she tries…
Jonker garners a certain level of success when her second collection of poetry, Smoke and Ochre, wins a national book award. This leads to a European book tour, which serves as Jonker’s last hurrah as well as her breaking point. When she returns to South Africa, Jonker is forced to undergo electric shock therapy. The treatment shatters her spirit and quickens the path to her eventual suicide.
With the background we are provided by van der Oest, Jonker’s suicide is certainly not surprising. As portrayed by Carice van Houten, Jonker is a tightly wound ball of unbridled emotion. In her best performance since Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book (2006), van Houten soulfully embodies Jonker’s passion in all its crests and troughs. Van Houten’s engulfing eyes and flowing hair lends Jonker a childlike naivete; her physical traits also helps develop Jonker into a more empathetic character. Jonker makes a lot of really stupid mistakes in her life; but, as embodied by van Houten, it is very difficult not to love her.
I only wish that van der Oest would have delved deeper into Jonker’s political beliefs as well as her poetry; instead, Black Butterflies focuses solely on depicting Jonker’s troubled interpersonal relationships and mental fragility, turning the film into just another overly dramatic bio-pic. Nonetheless, van Houten’s performance definitely makes this film worth watching.
Black Butterflies was released on DVD in the United States courtesy of Tribeca Film and New Video.