THE South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus says that part of the inspiration for his second feature, Beauty, came from a classified ad inviting men to meet up for sex on a remote farm. ''They didn't want anybody who was unmarried, gay, or not white to attend,'' he says.
''Because I'm not white, it just seemed so strange to me to find that kind of rhetoric in a post-apartheid South Africa.''
At this stage, Hermanus already had the theme of the film on his mind, ''the poisonous effect of beauty on someone who can't have it''. So he came to imagine the character of Francois van Heerden (Deon Lotz), a married, middle-aged, outwardly conservative sawmill owner who conceives a secret passion for Christian (Charlie Keegan), the handsome son of a friend.
One major influence on Beauty was Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suggesting depths of menace and obsession beneath the surface of the everyday. Hermanus describes the opening sequence, where van Heerden catches sight of Christian at a wedding, as a ''love letter'' to Hitchcock's Vertigo, which starred James Stewart as a detective who falls for a mystery woman and trails her from afar. Like Hitchcock, Hermanus was primarily interested in telling a story about individuals, not in commenting on society. ''I do plant smaller moments where the characters debate politics or the new South Africa, but it's never my main intention.''
All the same, a story that implicitly links racism, class anxiety and gay self-loathing has a special resonance in the post-apartheid context. ''In 1994 the system was flipped on its head,'' Hermanus says.
''So homosexuality, which was outlawed and witch-hunted … suddenly became this very accepted constitutional right. But really the mentality of the people hadn't necessarily changed, it's just that the laws had changed.''
Born in the early 1980s, Hermanus sees the film partly as a study of the attitudes of his parents' generation. ''We don't have so much of that baggage when it comes to gay rights and gay issues,'' he says of South Africans his own age.
''It does mean there is a conflict between the young and the old, because for us it's very normal and it's very practised and it's very natural.''
When Beauty was released in South Africa - after winning the Queer Palm Award at last year's Cannes Film Festival - the film became ''notorious'', but achieved only limited commercial success. ''It played for a few months in cinemas but it was definitely a niche market audience,'' Hermanus says. ''I think a large majority of people would feel more comfortable exploring the film in the privacy of their own home.''
What surprised him most was how severely many local viewers judged van Heerden. ''I thought of all the audiences in the world, the South African audience would understand him best and be able to contextualise him best,'' he says. ''Their reactions seemed to be very defensive rather than honest. Because Francois is very real in the South African context.''
Hermanus says he identifies with van Heerden's sense of being an outsider, and can sympathise with his hopelessly frustrated desires. ''I explore where he comes from, what he wants, and where he's going. I don't necessarily make an effort to judge him or to vilify him.''
Still, he grants that certain scenes in Beauty have the power to unsettle straight and gay viewers. ''I think that some gay men find the character to be frightening, because they can see how it could have been them. It's a reminder of the other road.''
Beauty is in limited release from August 2.