2016: The Endless River: South Africa is a foreign land

Charl Blignaut
2016-06-22 13:18
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Movie: The Endless River 
Director: Oliver Hermanus 
Starring: Crystal-Donna Roberts, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Darren Kelfkens, Clayton Evertson, Denise Newman 

The Endless River could be named after the village in the Western Cape where it is shot, Rivier Sonder End (River Without End), or it could be a reference to the cyclical nature of crime, where one criminal action begets another in revenge. 

But award-winning South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus isn’t telling. Nothing is clear and there are no easy answers in his beautiful, stylish third narrative feature – which premiered at the Venice Film Festival before making its South African debut at the Durban International Film Festival. 

The common line from critics is that The Endless River is exquisite but too drawn out and muddled. Is it muddled though? I don’t think so. I have other issues with it, but not that. 

What it is is a movie that makes its audience do some hard work – and that’s increasingly unusual in our short-attention-span world. 

Gilles (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is a foreigner, a Frenchman, farming in the town. Tiny (Crystal-Donna Roberts) is a waitress at the local petrol station restaurant. In a horrifying farm attack, Gilles’ wife and two sons are murdered by a balaclava-clad gang. His wife is raped but nothing is stolen. 

Tiny’s husband Percy (Clayton Evertson) has just been released after four years in jail for gang activity. Is his gang behind the murder; some sort of initiation attack? When Percy is in an apparent accident, is it the gang - or is it Gilles, who knows Percy is a suspect?

This is the central puzzle the viewer must answer for themselves in this existential murder mystery shuddering with noir and echoing the mood of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder 70s TV crime drama. It’s a puzzle that is exacerbated when Gilles and Tiny turn to one another and form an uneasy romantic relationship, united by their overwhelming grief, the only two people in the town who understand one another’s pain. 

This is not a happy film. It is dripping with pain, set against epic landscapes. When the two do smile in one scene it is almost jolting. Hermanus’ camera is immersive and Roberts is excellent, a strong young woman who must deal with toxic masculinity and life in a dead-end street. As in Shirley Adams (and even, mostly by erasure, in Skoonheid) Hermanus offers a sensitive and profound depiction of coloured life. 

Skoonheid is possibly my favourite South African film of all time and Shirley Adams is hugely important. While Endless River reveals itself slowly – and for me only properly several days after watching it – as an uncompromising essay in grief and a very clever piece of screenwriting, it feels a little indulgent, a bit too consciously auteurish, mostly because it is so drawn out. 

Hermanus is one of our finest directors of actors and a genius at unpacking human behaviour, but while Duvauchelle is emotionally convincing, he never seems to quite work. He makes the South African countryside look like a foreign land, bringing a conscious French arthouse tone to the film. Certainly, though, this adds to Tiny’s sense of dislocation and is also a grand equaliser – is Gilles any less toxic than Percy? And if he did take revenge on Percy, did this set he and Tiny free or only wrap them in more chains? Only the audience can answer that for themselves. 

Endless River, a meditation on violence and loss, is not Hermanus’ finest film, but it’s a damn side more accomplished than most films at the festival this year. 

» The Endless River will be screened at Nu Metro Pavilion at 8.30pm tonight and at The Playhouse on June 25 at noon. It opens on circuit next month.