The best of South African literature
Director: Paula van der Oest
There’s tragedy in any suicide; and tragedy when the person who takes their own life is a creative person is that their voice is stilled, there will be no more work from them.
There’s tragedy too in that the memory of such a life is blighted by the violent, sad fact of their premature death. Recall the works and life of Ingrid Jonker, and immediately there’s the memory of the fact that she walked into the sea at the age of 31, leaving a daughter, a life, a foam of chaos behind her, including a litter of broken relationships. She also left a body of work that has been lauded and applauded both in her lifetime and in the years since.
But the fact of the nature of her death remains, that she chose to take her life. You cannot get away from that.
Black Butterflies, the first full-length film to feature the poet, trembles with this knowledge. Jonker’s personality, in all its tumultuousness, ensures a headlong plunge into what almost seems inevitable, we know what’s coming, we’re pulled along, compelled, even horrified at times. The ending’s clear, inevitable.
Dutch actress Carice van Houten takes the role of the doomed poet, playing the part with an intensity that would seem to echo the original Jonker.
Emotions play violently across Van Houten’s face: Jonker was a woman who was deeply psychologically troubled, a woman who drew people to her, and yet her intensity burned through the relationships, ending so many. Van Houten’s Jonker is a likeable woman, despite the violence of inner demons. The mercurial nature of the poet shines through Van Houten’s features.
The film is directed by Dutch director Paula van der Oest, and the cast is a mix of Dutch actors, Irish actor Liam Cunningham and a sprinkling of local actors.
Cape Town, where Jonker lived, is the brlliantly bright background of much of this film, as much a character as Jonker and those who surrounded her.
It is a surprise to hear the actors speaking English. After all, Jonker was an Afrikaans poet, and when you read that her grasp of English was sometimes uncertain, it is disconcerting to hear the Van Houten’s Dutch-accented English. You can harp on this point – as some have – or accept it, which you must to appreciate this film.
The story unfolds like a tragedy: there’s the early death of her mother, which saw Ingrid and her sister being forced to live with their father, Abraham Jonker (Rutger Hauer), a censor for the National Party government; the early marriage to a man Ingrid would later divorce, and which would produce a child, Simone; and Ingrid’s desperate need for approval and validation from her father despite the repeated clashes with his ideology.
In one of the more heartbreaking scenes Abraham tears up her poetry when she shows it to him. Yet the need for his approval remains.
The film opens with Ingrid’s near drowing; she’s saved by a man whom she discovers is Jack Cope, the writer and poet.
She begins an affair with Cope (Liam Cunningham), then moves in with him, and moves among his circle of friends, including Uys Krige (local actor Graham Clarke), and Andre Brink. Ingrid’s tempestuousness colours and tears apart her relationship with Cope: we watch as her increasingly fragile and mercurial nature come to the fore, and the violence of that splits them apart.
Jonker flirts with Brink, and then grows angry when Cope feels threatened by this.
Within minutes the force and contradiction of her personality are displayed. Cope looks on, and can only react against Jonker’s irrationality. Once more it’s doomed – we feel, again, that there can be no happy ending.
Also surprisingly, Black Butterflies does not reflect the relationship between writer Brink and Jonker. In reality the two had as tempestuous relationship as she had with Cope. Brink wrote movingly about this in his autobiography, A Fork in the Road, and one wonders at this ommission.
Those unfamiliar with Jonker’s biography will not miss this, but with a more detailed reading of her life, the ommision is not only surprising, but glaringly obvious and doesn’t seem to make sense at all.
In addition, the fact remains that it is yet another example of the seam of madness and emotional upheaval that marked her life and journey through it.
Again and again the mad force of her personlity, the immaturity and neediness, threatens and tears holes in her relationships and life. She loses her job as a secretary, has no money, briefly stays with her father, lies to Cope who comes to fetch her, and she then increasingly makes her home in seedy hotels.
Despair overwhelms her, she is hospitalised, but the mental remedies of the 1960s is no cure at all.
Through it all, Jonker’s blonde daughter remains with her, an anchor to life.
Black Butterflies is compellingly told. Van Houten holds the movie through her potrayal of the poet. Jonker emerges as both an extremely difficult woman to know, yet one who, time and again, drew people to her through her genius, the bright unsteady flame of her inner fire, and the loyalty she inspired despite the intense highs and lows of her personality.
In one scene, when Jonker is recovering in a mental home, we watch as Cope and Krige sort through her papers, ordering her poems, creating a book which later became Rook en oker (Smoke and Ochre), both men so dedicated to her talent, determined on her publication.
The film is shot through with lines of Jonker’s poetry, which seems a fitting showcase to her talent.
It’s beautifully filmed, from beach scenes, to a hotel scene in which rain falls and Jonker succumbs to the demons within.
We also watch as Jonker scribbles lines of poetry on the wall of her bedroom, hearing that: “The illusion that life was beautiful” or “I repeat you/without beginning or end/repeat your body”, along with the lines of her famous Little Grain of Sand, and The child who was shot dead by soldiers in Nyanga, which was read by Nelson Mandela at his inaguration as president in 1994.
The period details are faultness, with 1960s Cape Town captured in many scenes, from the bourgeois respectability of Abraham Jonker’s home, to the dilapidated hotel rooms, contrasted with the brightness of the beaches.
Black Butterflies is a beautiful portrait of an artist felled in her prime by her own psychological demons, flailing powerless against the noise within, a noise that produced violently beautiful poetry and, chillingly, also served as knife and ending.