Audiences may wonder what relation Ivan Botha and Donnalee Roberts’s new film, Vir Altyd (“Forever”), bears to the last one, Pad na jou Hart (“Road to Your Heart”) (both directed by Jaco Smit). The characters and settings are new (don’t expect to have escaped the Cape since the last one, though), but one senses more than a few links between the two works. They’re easy enough to track down: we’re still securely in romantic comedy/travelogue territory; the two stars are again a reluctant couple, adamant not to fall for one another despite being scantily clad together on a tropical island; and, most regrettably, the film is still beset with the impedimenta of hipsterism. The opening shots are of neatly picked, pastel-hued proteas in copper pots, yellowed maps and photographs, vintage cameras, and a shiny VW Beetle, all accompanied by the folk-rock yelps of Mumford & Sons. In short, having travelled down the road to her heart, Botha must now devise a plan to keep it with him – for always.
The chief difference between the two films is the artistic accomplishment realised by the filmmakers. In both movies, audiences are attracted to and won over by the charming lead actors, the artificially sweetened script they recite from, the bucketfuls of sunshine and quaint natural scenery in which they find themselves immersed, and the inevitability and virtue of their romance. With the characters of Pad na jou Hart, however, we’re never given more than a handsome smile and the obvious discontent it so pitifully hides. The characters are pretty faces trying to conceal a sore spot, and once those bruises are bared and soothed, there’s nothing more to them as people. Hugo and Nina, however – the young couple at the centre of Vir Altyd – while uttering dialogue (given to them by the actors who play them) no more distinguished nor gripping than their precursors did, are bestowed by the cast’s performances with a little more life, and implications of broader experiences and deeper emotions.
The script, once again, presents a contrived scenario that flings two wilful young people together, though this time they have a history. Each is very clearly troubled about it, and it’s hinted at throughout in short, intermittent flashbacks – of a childhood romance as well as of an enchanted night out for two young lovers. Hugo has returned from a working stint in America as a professional photographer. The film’s beginning packs in three surprises for his unsuspecting mother (Helene Truter): first, he arrives at her house in Paarl without any warning he’d be in the country; second, he trips the security alarm and she finds him pinned to the floor by three buffoonish local policemen; and third, most distressing, he’s grown a long, straw-coloured beard that stretches from one glossy sideburn to the other, the likes of which probably haven’t been spotted in the Cape since the Dutch broke away from British rule.
He arrives on the eve of Nina’s wedding to a corporate cad (whose name eludes me, and apparently IMDb as well), which his mother is catering, and which he dutifully attends. Mercifully, he’s clean shaven when he turns up for it, and the ceremony turns out not to be as wretchedly long and suffocating as he’d dreaded. When the time comes for Nina’s fiance to consecrate the remainder of his earthbound days to her, he takes one nervous gulp of air and darts out of the church like a saint outrunning sin. Nina, refusing to be put out by the minor inconvenience of an absent groom, demands that the wedding reception go on as planned, and she commandeers Hugo as her date for the evening. The other guests decide to skip the party, and the two of them – left with only the waiters and DJ for company – take it upon themselves not to allow a drop of the precious Methode Cap Classique to go to waste. In their drunken elation, they resolve to use Nina’s honeymoon as well: a week-long holiday at a romantic resort in Mauritius.
This decision is sorely regretted when they arrive on the island, dry-mouthed and hungover, but the bright colours of the tropical surrounds and the sprightliness of the local staff warm them to the experience. There, they live in communion with two other couples: the middle-aged Marietjie and Ben (Ilse Roos and Dirk Stoltz), attempting to fan the swiftly dying embers of their languid marriage; and the elderly Betsie and Paul (Elize Cawood, Wilson Dunster), who coo and caress one another like love-struck teenagers. The one pair is a warning to Hugo and Nina – avoid complacency in love, and never take your partner for granted – the other is the promise of a reward for hard work and faithful endurance.
As was to be expected, the women dominate the screen here. Botha, Stoltz, and Dunster are all capable actors, but Roos and Cawood (and even Roberts in her naive and slightly self-regarding loveliness) manage to step out of and above the petty devices of the script, and into characters who think and breathe and live right in front of us. I’ve long thought that feminine intuition must, in some mysterious way, grant women an advantage when in front of the camera, allowing their performances to flicker on with consummate ease, like a light bulb, and Vir Altyd did absolutely nothing to make me doubt this theory.
The problem with Vir Altyd, little as I was expecting to say so before I saw it, is that there isn’t enough of it. In the great romantic comedies of recent years – The Break-Up, Knocked Up, Trainwreck – the filmmakers allowed room for the characters to let loose their anger, their disappointment, their built-up tension, their frustration, their dreams, their fantasies, their fears, their desires, their pain, their visions – their very beings. Jennifer Aniston and Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer were given reams of dialogue, or space to improvise it, as well as masterful directorial guidance that provided the opportunity for fierce expression of furious emotions and far-reaching ideas. When the couples fought, it was loudly and for minutes on end, and the actors managed to access deep recesses of true feeling and found a way to express that feeling physically.
Roberts and Botha do indeed fight, and it gives rise to moments of surprising risk and excitement. Never have I less felt that an Afrikaans movie was made mechanically and with commerce in mind, which is very much what Leon van Nierop seemed to think when writing his review, “Cute and Safe for Teenagers’ Valentine’s Day”. The word sakebesluit (“business decision”) comes up five times in his 600-word review:
“We don’t always think of the characters as Hugo and Nina, but as extensions of the actors’ personas. Business decision. … Elize Cawood and Ilse Roose are somewhat wasted on characters without much meat on their bones. But that, after all, is the recipe for a romantic adventure – and that’s what makes the film a business decision, because the other two couples are devised such that they serve only as contrasts for the leading pair. A business decision, therefore, gets in the way of portraying convincing flesh-and-blood humans. … The device that lands them on the island is too easy. Business decision.
“What also bothers me is the reason they leave Mauritius again. That deus ex machina where two characters suddenly show up is unmotivated. … This is Pad na jou Hart-lite, an example that we can now film romances attractively and professionally, but it’s not entirely on the same standard as its predecessor. … Often one is in search of a story that moves, not just pretty people who dance underwater or wander for too long through marketplaces without developing the intrigue.”
[My own translation]
As I’ve noted before, the text used to shoot a film is always secondary to the image, and shouldn’t be confused for the film itself. Cawood and Roos provide the flavoursome meat to the script’s bare bones, and the experienced actors make their characters into more than simple contrasts to the young couple. They are convincing people of flesh and blood, because the director and his actors sculpt it onto the empty skeletons in the script. The interest in the story is developed in the images; we don’t always require text for this purpose. (Also, I’m not sure how much of himself van Nierop had vested in the remark, but I always expect my dei ex machina to be entirely unmotivated.)
Nieteenstaande, the expression of Hugo and Nina’s moods and feelings does not draw on intense inner lives or imagination; it falls a little short of the possibilities of the genre (demonstrated in the great films I mentioned above). But while I contend that there is considerable room for this film to have stretched and flexed and rolled around in, I put it to you that this is no trivial play or pastime: not the mere “audience-friendly romance” as van Nierop states, but a mark of genuine growth in Afrikaans cinema, and a welcome specimen of blossoming capability among Afrikaans artists.