Peacock

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Peacock
"The film explores the fluidity of sexuality and gender in a way which highlights the relationship between queer self-acceptance and the kind of fluid, liberated thinking against which such a brittle order could not endure."

Whilst the horrors of South Africa’s Apartheid regime are well known around the world, even to younger generations, relatively little cinematic attention has as yet been paid to its treatment of LGBTQ+ people. This frequently involved institutionalisation, non-consensual electric shock treatment, drug treatment and even surgery. Jaco Minaar’s psychosexual thriller follows the journey of one woman whose youthful transgressions result in her being brutally punished and then sent away to a remote farm to serve as nurse and housekeeper to an ailing theologian. It’s a haunted house story in the Gothic tradition, with the large, shadowy building and its environs analogous to the regime whose creators and enablers lived in constant fear of those whom they had crushed returning to exact revenge.

Anna (Tarryn Wyngaard) is no monster to begin with. Despite the strictures under which she has lived, her acts of rebellion have been small ones: she has slipped away to enjoy nights at underground LGBTQ+ club Lulu’s, whose vivid colours position it as an environment quite at odds with what we see elsewhere; and she has been intimate, at least to some degree, with another young woman at the institute where she was raised. When arriving at the farmhouse she seems to have every intention of doing her alotted duty, and she is diligent in her attention to the ageing Sarel (Johan Botha). He is clearly psychologically unstable, however, experiencing moments of panic and claiming that devils are whispering in his ears. This results in intermittent but frightening outbursts of anger. He also tells her a story about a prince who loved a woman who fell in love with a peacock, which may or may not have something to do with the peacock he keeps in his own garden, in a cage so small that it can only just fan out its tail.

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The situation is further complicated by Anna’s discovery of old photographs of Sarel’s daughter, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the girl she loved. She hears a rumour that Klara was once kept prisoner in the house. Assorted relatives visit from time to time, and amongst them is someone she recognises from Lulu’s. Sarel, who writes obsessively, clings to the regime’s conviction that everything can be categorised and controlled, but the film explores the fluidity of sexuality and gender in a way which highlights the relationship between queer self-acceptance and the kind of fluid, liberated thinking against which such a brittle order could not endure.

That fluidity is literalised in the constant association of Anna with water: the swimming pool in which she had her first lesbian tryst; the baths in which she immerses herself when she needs to escape; running taps and dishwater and, eventually, a storm. This is contrasted with images of death and decay which belong to the driest parts of the South African landscape, with hollowed out, dark-stained, slowly desiccating forms. Minaar pushes this visual language to the point where some viewers will run out of patience, but in so doing he highlights the similar experience of the central characters. Something in this troubled world has got to give.

Whilst the central metaphors serve a purpose, others are somewhat overdone. Like many a Gothic tale, Peacock lays it on too thick, almost suffocating in the process, and there are so many distractions that it may take you a while to get your bearings. This is likely to be a particular issue for international viewers who lack some of the context. That said, it has a strong core, and Wyngaard has the presence necessary to cut through. It’s a flawed but still potent film, and long overdue.

Reviewed on: 08 Dec 2023
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The psychosexual journey of a young woman into the dark recesses of the Afrikaner psyche and its compromised past.

Director: Jaco Minnaar

Writer: David Cornwell, Jaco Minnaar

Starring: Tarryn Wyngaard, Johan Botha, Ruan Wessels, Alida Theron, Liza Van Deventer

Year: 2022

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: South Africa

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