Black Butterflies

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<i>Black Butterflies</i>

To see in my eyes
The sun which I will now cover for ever
With black butterflies…

—Ingrid Jonker

The tragic and mysterious story of a writer—oft described as the South African Sylvia Plath—is brought to the screen in Paula van der Oest’s Black Butterflies. In this biopic set in Cape Town, Ingrid Jonker’s words and experiences are carefully exposed in an attempt to capture her life and work as an Afrikaan writer. Unfortunately, the nucleus of Black Butterflies is not so much Jonker, but Jonker’s various love affairs with other writers and her tumultuous relationship with her father. Such a powerful tale based on a figure known for her intelligence and intensity could have made for a great film. However, instead of seeing a complex poet and woman, the viewer suffers through a series of dreaded feminine clichés in a film that also fails to deliver a strong narrative plot.

Van der Oest (director of the 2002 Oscar-nominated Zus and Zo) and writer Greg Latter (2007’s Goodbye Bafana) present Jonker as a wandering, desperate and withering woman; she is often the other woman, the cheating, married woman and, a little girl-like-woman desperate for a disapproving father’s love. As Jonker, Carice van Houten (Valkyrie and Black Book) delivers a consistent but unremarkable performance.

In the film’s opening scene, a carefree/careless Ingrid nearly drowns in the ocean (foreshadowing the film’s dismal end) and is rescued by writer and soon-to-be lover Jack Cope, played by Liam Cunningham (Safe House, The Wind That Shakes The Barley). Introducing themselves, and realizing that they are both writers (and fans of one another’s work) they begin to fall for each other in front of the crashing waves. The image of the two lovers on the shore becomes increasingly familiar as the film progresses. Beautiful long shots of the water against the shoreline represent a certain ephemeral motif in Black Butterflies, one that repeatedly brings the viewer (and Ingrid) back to the same place.

She soon begins her affair with Cope (who is also married and separated) and goes on to take other lovers, never quite satisfied and always remaining just out of their reach. The relationship between Cope and Jonker, however, is central to the film; when escaping some trouble, she turns to him. Sadly, we see her running away often (baby in tow), either to Jack or her sister (played by Candice D’Arcy)—and sometimes, desperately, back to her father.

Rutger Hauer plays Abraham Jonker, a perfectly wretched father. His cold, steady eyes deliver a well-measured amount of disappointment and hatred in just about every scene with Ingrid. She begs him to read the poems she has dedicated to him in her book, asking, “Don’t you want to know me?” Without hesitation he replies, “I already know you. You are your mother.” Although the lines are delivered without the fervor one might have hoped for, the moment is powerful. Her mother had, in fact, died in the psychiatric hospital into which Ingrid would later check herself.

Black Butterflies has few exciting moments, but one scene unfolds with great intensity and works to draw the viewer back in to the storyline. While Jonker is committed, Jack Cope discovers scraps of paper and notebooks of her writings. He works vigilantly with another fellow-writer to compile and edit the manuscript for Rook en oker (“Smoke and Ochre”). In this scene, the viewer gets to hear Jonker’s words read earnestly and passionately by two of the powerful male voices in the film. After leaving the hospital, Jonker is published and achieves literary celebrity (though her father continues to reject her).

Scenes depicting Ingrid’s serious concern for the political state of South Africa are not as prevalent as, say, the sex scenes. Black Butterflies does not succeed in its presentation of the character as a whole being, with personal and socio-political agendas. Instead, Jonker is portrayed as a lover and daughter first, a poet second (or even a poet in reaction to her father and her lovers), and a mother almost never. (Although present in many scenes, the daughter has few lines. Ingrid and the film itself neglect her almost entirely.) Such an incomplete presentation of the poet’s life undermines the viewer’s trust in even the artistic veracity of the biopic as a whole.

Visually, Black Butterfliesoffers many striking images. When Ingrid returns to her childhood room, we see poetry written everywhere—in the wood, in the walls. Throughout the film, we see her writing (and hear poems read with a voice-over) in strange places. These moments, concerned primarily with the poetry, give one a better sense of Jonker’s character and are somewhat reminiscent of Basquiat, where the artist found a canvas everywhere he went. The rather dark tone to the film also contributes to its aesthetic appeal. The weather, as shot, is often abysmal. A similar tone overwhelmed in 2011’s Jane Eyre , inspiring a haunting but lovely sense of pain and hope. Black Butterflies delivers a similar sensibility in its production and cinematography.

The film closes with the recorded reading of Jonker’s most famous poem (“The child is not dead”) by Nelson Mandela during his address at the opening of the first democratic parliament in 1994:

The child is not dead
the child raises his fists against his mother
who screams Africa screams the smell
of freedom and heather
in the locations of the heart under siege…

The poem is heartbreaking and hopeful. It is a shame that Black Butterflies fails to deliver a comparable piece of art. Jonker’s work and life deserved a more intimate and ambitious cinematic tribute: one that might have inspired viewers and contributed to the legacy of a powerful writer. But, if nothing else, viewers can leave Black Butterflies having been introduced to sublime poems that have been since written into the turbulent and triumphant history of a country. Jonker’s legacy lives on.

Director: Paula van der Oest
Writer: Greg Latter
Starring: Rutger Hauer, Carice van Houten and Liam Cunningham
Release Date: Mar. 31, 2012