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Case Number 24257

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Black Butterflies

New Video // 2011 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge P.S. Colbert // August 4th, 2012

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All Rise...

Judge P.S. Colbert would make one pasty, freckled Butterfly.

The Charge

South Africa's Sylvia Plath.

Opening Statement

"I am with those
who abuse sex
because the individual doesn't count
with those who get drunk
against the abyss of the brain…
with those numbed in institutions
shocked with electric currents…
with those who have been deprived of their hearts…
with those coloured Africans dispossessed…
with those who kill…"—Ingrid Jonker

Facts of the Case

An extremely selective biography of much-celebrated (though ill-fated) South African poet Ingrid Jonker (Carice Van Houten, Valkyrie), Black Butterflies concentrates mainly on the final five years of her life, a period of extreme highs and lows, culminating in her suicide at the age of thirty one.

The Evidence

On the evening of 19 July 1965, Ingrid walked into the sea, drowning herself in Cape Town's Three Anchor Bay. Upon receiving news of his daughter's death, Abraham Jonker (head of the South African publications censorship board) reportedly replied, "They can throw her back into the sea, for all I care."

Fortunately, Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner) isn't forced to deliver this monstrous line in his portrayal of Abraham. He miraculously imbues this man with humanity, despite being restricted to a series of scenes that find Jonker growing increasingly abusive towards his daughter before finally declaring her a slut, and saying he never wants to see her again. Hauer's steely, rigid performance (think of a chronically obstructed bowel) dominates these scenes, making Van Houten's shrinking violet responses entirely legitimate.

The dynamic between Van Houten and Liam Cunningham (The Guard) as Ingrid's lover Jack Cope (a respected novelist, twenty years her senior) also relies heavily on reaction to illustrate the difference between the two; she is impetuous and mercurial, he is cautious and considered. Cunningham masterfully clears the hurdles of a most challenging task, keeping his character vital and interesting while bearing witness to a more exciting one.

Ingrid's ability to excite the people of South Africa with her taboo-breaking poetry (read: hyper-sexual and virulently anti-Apartheid) has never been in doubt. Her second published volume of verse, Smoke and Ochre (co-edited by Cope) was awarded the country's prestigious Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel (APB) literary prize shortly after its debut in 1963. When newly-elected President Nelson Mandela addressed his country's first democratic parliament in 1994, he opened with a reading of Ingrid's poem "The Child is Not Dead."

Carice Van Houten's portrayal of the iconic Ingrid Jonker gleams with rare brilliance. While Greg Latter's screenplay has been (somewhat justifiably) charged with reducing the artist's life to an episodic parade of booze-fueled and sexually promiscuous adventures, spelled by involuntary mental hospital stays, Van Houten radiates authenticity from start to finish.

Dutch-born director Paula Van Der Oest (Moonlight) has made some risky choices here, choosing to not only present Jonker the woman as a bed-hopping lush and thoroughly neglectful mother, but Jonker the writer as an accidental genius, with poetry racing through her fevered brain. For the period covered by the film, the works come from rushed and whispering inner voices that dictate, while she scrawls them onto her bedroom walls. In one extreme instance, she uses a steam-frosted shower door.

In a stylistic about-face, the director employs a journalistic method for the film's climactic scene, involving a passport protest demonstration in the run-down settlement town of Nyanga. The inevitably violent clash between armed police (all-white) and angry oppressed protesters (all-black) results in the unimaginable tragedy that inspires Jonker to write her most famous poem. Van Der Oest's choice to eschew such manipulative techniques as over-emotive close-ups and musical underscoring in favor of an almost news-reel depiction of the events brings them agonizingly to life.

New Video likewise brings to life the gloriously beautiful location work of cinematographer Giulio Biccari with a crisp and clean standard definition 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Audio comes in loud and clear through two options: Dolby 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo mixes. English subtitles would have helped tremendously in navigating the heavily-accented dialogue, but you can't win 'em all. The disc's lone bonus feature is a brief, though not particularly enlightening interview with Van Der Oest and Van Houten.

Closing Statement

Black Butterflies is by no means a comprehensive look at the life of Ingrid Jonker. Somewhat plagued by standard biopic pitfalls, the film is nonetheless a marvel of directing, acting, and cinematographic prowess.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 95
Audio: 90
Extras: 20
Acting: 99
Story: 85
Judgment: 93

Perp Profile

Studio: New Video
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Biographical
• Drama
• Foreign

Distinguishing Marks

• Interview


• IMDb

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