Black Butterflies: Lost opportunities

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Black Butterflies
Paula van der Oest
Cinematography: Giulio Biccari
Starring: Carice van Houten, Liam Cunningham, Rutger Hauer, Nicholas Pauling
Runtime: 95 minute

 “And then she came in, small and quiet but tense like a coiled spring, her curly hair unruly, her dark eyes guarded but smouldering ... In the course of the weekend I saw her eyes move through an amazing range of expressions, from cool and objective to flashing with ferocity, from serene to exuberant to apathetic to disillusioned to eager ...”

So writes André Brink in his introduction to the English translation of the poetry collection Black Butterflies when describing the Afrikaans poet Ingrid Jonker, with whom he once had an intense and passionate affair. Jonker, who has often been referred to as South Africa’s Sylvia Plath due to her intensity, committed suicide at the young age of 31.

The film Black Butterflies opens with a screen brimming with the Cape Town ocean – a turbulent and swelling body moved by the gravity of the moon. It is, of course, a metaphor for Jonker’s tumultuous nature and her own fascination with the sea. Her poem “i am with those” is read aloud in this opening scene – a dark and existential piece which promises an equally existential filmic rendition of Jonker’s life. But it soon becomes apparent that this is not to be when we cut to a young Jonker swimming against the tide and finding herself in trouble. She frantically beckons to a passing male jogger for help. He turns out to be none other than the writer Jack Cope, who rescues her. Predictably a relationship ensues. This is the first of a series of expedient short cuts the director uses in this film to keep the narrative uncomplicated. The circular nature of the script also comes off as a convenience, rather than a well thought out artistic decision, when the film ends in the exact location where it began – with Jack Cope jogging along the same beach while Jonker’s cadaver is fished from the seaweed. Existentialism cannot be so opportunely packaged and neither should a tragic and tumultuous story be squeezed into such a conventional framework.

When Jonker (played by Carese van Houten) committed suicide in 1965 she left behind a collection of Afrikaans-language poems. Her poem “Die kind” was read by Nelson Mandela during his opening address to the first South African democratic parliament, catapulting her to posthumous international fame. Unfortunately, the same Mandela reading of the poem is replayed at the end of the film, which just seems gratuitous. It gives the film a cheesy touristy or opportunistic foreign fundraising promo feel – cringeworthy, to say the least.

The script, penned by Greg Latter (Goodbye Bafana) focuses primarily on the poet’s troubled relationship with her father, Abraham (Rutger Hauer), who was a Member of Parliament responsible for censoring books like those written by his daughter. It also focuses on her turbulent love affair with Jack Cope (Liam Cunningham), a novelist and leftist intellectual who was twenty years her senior.

Her father is a stoic and unyielding male, a patriarch in every sense of the word. He constantly thwarts Jonker’s attempts to get him to engage in her poetry and seems unable to show her any affection at all. He is more adept at wounding her and likens her to her mother, who died of mental illness when she was a child. She is further wounded when he publicly denounces her poetry.

This paternal wounding is set up as the reason for Jonker’s disorderly lifestyle. She is depicted as a mercurial, needy and unstable woman with a taste for many lovers and lots of alcohol. There is nothing essentially wrong with this, for as her opening poem suggests, she herself is aware of all of this. But that is where the film fails for me. We are not once taken into her world of self-awareness or introduced to the type of reflexivity we witness in her opening poem. Rather, we witness a Jonker who irrationally lurches from one man to the next, drinks too much, throws tantrums and seems to externalise all her pain.

There is only one scene that faintly points to this internal aspect of hers. It takes place in her childhood bedroom, to which, as an adult, she retreats in a moment of unbearable pain. The walls are covered in her poems and it is the only instance that directly links the character playing Jonker to a Jonker that I could relate to as the poet whose books I have read – the embodied Jonker battling against a patriarchal stranglehold on language and meaning as represented by her father figure, while instinctively and primitively recording her emotional life on her bedroom walls as her wild feminine nature had no choice but to burst forth and break the shackles of the patriarchal constraints of the day.

To my mind her childhood bedroom represents that wild space in the feminine psyche that French poststructuralist philosopher Julia Kristeva refers to as the semiotic realm or the Chora – that place in the feminine consciousness that precedes the symbolic, where words were not yet formed and needs were met by the maternal. Kristeva said that women should write of their longing for this lost maternal world where there is no phallus, no father and no law, and where those presymbolic, intuitive and multifaceted open-ended emotions can be expressed freely – outside of the structured male linguistic logic. Therein lies Jonker’s duality, as she struggles with her own primal longings for the maternal semiotic realm but also for approval from the phallocratic patriarch of the symbolic world. This is what breaks her in the end, and if the film had explored these possibilities further it may have made for a gripping study. But the film chooses banal realism and the narrow conventional approach of dissecting Jonker’s relationships with men as the focus of her turbulence.

Her evidently dysfunctional relationship with Cope starts off with all the promise of sexual zeal and artistic stimulation, but soon shifts to contempt, as the seemingly insatiable Jonker is unable to remain monogamous. She finds herself pregnant and has a backstreet abortion, which is followed by depression and a stint in a mental hospital.

As the relationship progresses Jonker is revealed as ever more narcissistic and capricious. She is rejected by Cope and thereafter gets rejected by man after man – apparently as a result of this unseemly behaviour. Yet in Brink’s foreword in the book Black Butterflies we get a great sense of Cope as the one who would not let go of her. This film version however, chooses to singularly show Jonker as the clingy, needy woman, unable to let go of a man who wants little to do with her because, as he puts it, she drains him. God forbid that a male producer or writer would admit to male co-dependency in relationship with women.

In the end Jonker is reduced to the unyielding masculine view of a troubled woman, both desirable and despicable.

The male gaze is also evident in the decision to focus on an external Jonker. It fails to adequately explore her interior angst or to convey the depth of the personal anguish that manifested in her poetry. Rather, we find ourselves viewing her through a panopticon and her “undoneness” is shown mostly in relation to her dealings with men in a way that sets her up for judgement. In the end we are encouraged to sympathise with the men and feel somewhat repulsed by her.

Although the film is directed by a woman (Paula van der Oes) it may have fared better if she had collaborated with a female writer who possessed a deep love for and knowledge of poetry and maybe even poststructuralist psychoanalysis. This combination would have made for a more interesting deconstruction of the complex human condition and wild feminine psyche.

Van Houten is not a bad actress, and her portrayal of Jonker has been lauded by many. To me, though, like the unsuccessful and shallow portrayal of Sylvia Plath by Gwyneth Paltrow, it is glaringly obvious that this is a role being acted rather than embodied, which admittedly may be the fault of the director rather than the actor. Her face, though engaging and intense, is not the canvas of mobile emotionality that Brink describes, and she does not manage to exhibit the brooding intensity that Jonker was known for. Her interpretation of Jonker is just acceptable – although I have to say that the Dutch accent is not. There are so many Afrikaans women in South Africa who could have pulled this role off. Why hire an almost entirely South African male cast and then place a foreign female lead role, with an obvious Dutch accent, among them? This is as entirely nonsensical as casting Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Mandela. (Liam Cunningham’s accent did not jar as that of a person who grew up in an anglicised Natal.)

The historical backdrop to the film is also somewhat shaky. We get only a brief sense of South Africa in the 1960s with vignettes such as the political violence in the township in which Jonker sees a young boy being shot – a rather wooden and staged depiction of the real thing. We also get a sense of a time in history when intellectuals formed radical groups and fed into and off one another’s intellectualism as Jonker socialises with a young Uys Krige, André Brink and other fellow writers who formed a group known as “Die Sestigers” in opposition to the apartheid regime in place at the time.

I was not entirely unmoved by the film, and there were times when I had to bite back the tears as I remembered the story of the real Ingrid Jonker, the intense Afrikaans poet who felt so much inner turmoil that she was compelled to write and write. While this fervour is captured perfectly in the words of her opening poem, the film has almost completely missed the point of Jonker’s full complexity. To portray her as neurotic, childlike and narcissistic is just not enough. If this had been a portrayal of a fictional poetic woman it may have worked. But this is Ingrid Jonker.

It is a great pity that an opportunity to make a darker and more artistic rendition of a poet’s life has been lost and a bland, commercially viable film has been made instead. If the film had been made in Afrikaans it would most certainly have done more justice to Jonker and we may have had an authentic art house success rather than this pruned and somewhat artificial version of one of our greatest South African Afrikaans poets.

For me the lead role in the film was the beautiful Cape Ocean – and, of course, the words of Ingrid Jonker’s opening poem.

I am with those

I am with those  
who abuse sex 
because the individual doesn’t count 
with those who get drunk 
against the abyss of the brain 
against the illusion that life 
had once been beautiful or good or sacred 
against the garden parties of falseness 
against the silence beating at the temples 
with those who poor and old 
race against death the atom bomb of the days 
with those stupefied in institutions 
shocked with electric currents 
through the cataracts of the senses 
with those whose hearts have been removed 
like the light from the robot of safety 
with those coloured african deprived 
with those who kill 
because every death confirms anew 
the lie of life 
and please forget 
about justice it doesn’t exist 
about brotherhood it’s deceit 
about love it has no right



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