Monday 23 February 2015

The Duke Of Burgundy

50 Shades Of Burgundy

The Duke Of Burgundy
2015  UK
Directed by Peter Strickland 
UK cinema release print.

I found Peter Strickland’s last movie, Berberian Sound Studio (reviewed here) somewhat disappointing.

Partially this was due to the publicity surrounding the film where various critics were, quite inexcusably, trying to describe the film in terms of some vague stylistic leanings to Italian giallo cinema which, seriously, the film fails to live up to... if anything it bears much more resemblance to mid-80s American surrealism via David Lynch than anything any of the great giallo directors (such as Mario Bava, Sergio Martino, Dario Argento etc) would have concocted. The same viewpoint the critics had of that film also seems to have been upheld by the director himself and I kind of wonder why a man clearly intelligent enough to make what are, at the very least, interesting cinematic experiences, is mis-selling his product like this. The various critics who jumped on this pseudo-giallo band wagon were equally inexcusable and, frankly, should have been educated enough about movies to know better considering their vocation. If you really want to see a modern movie which has some of the stylistic leanings of the great gialli, or at least uses the same cinematic syntax to fulfil a story idea, then check out movies like Amer (reviewed here), Tulpa (reviewed here) and The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears (reviewed here).

Mind you, although I was disappointed in Strickland’s previous movie, I was still quite looking forward to his next feature because he is obviously a significant artist (whether I like his product or not) and he is bound to do something interesting when you let him loose with a camera and an editing suite. My interest was further compounded when I heard that the film would be tackling the somewhat volatile area of a D/s BDSM relationship with an all female cast. BDSM is, of course, the current ‘catch all’ term for what we, in the good old days, used to call S&M. It stands for Bondage, Domination, Sadism & Masochism (depending on which websites you read) and D/s is equal to dominant/submissive, the choice of upper or lower case signifying the apparent hierarchy of the two roles to each other... although that’s always a sticky question and it’s one I’ll come to in a minute because the film actually explores that duality as the trappings of its primary story objective.

First of all, though, I’ll tell you why I was so disappointed by this film... and it’s all down to the 'homage' inherent in the storyline. A couple of years ago I watched a classic 1969 movie called Scacco Alla Regina aka Check To The Queen and you can read my review of it here. The film deals with a D/s relationship between two women and it’s a light, possibly misleading but enthusiastic exploration of the subject matter. Unfortunately, The Duke Of Burgundy, while having a kind of small chamber concerto feel to it, compared to the orchestral deluge of the earlier film, seems pretty much to be an update of the former. So much so, in fact, that even the gorgeous score to the new film, by a group called Cat’s Eyes seems to me to be, shall we say... heavily influenced by Piero Piccioni’s score to Scacco Alla Regina. And when I say heavily influenced, there was even a scene in The Duke Of Burgundy when it sounds like the director had cut the sequence to a track from Check To The Queen (often called the temp track in film music) and the band had copied it almost note by note... I don’t know whether he did actually do that, of course, or whether the group was specifically influenced by that track on that score for that scene... but I do find it an amazing coincidence that the scoring should be so similar.

Of course, all this had the effect of breaking my concentration and popping me out of the movie I was trying to watch.

Now, to be far to Strickland, the movie does have a slightly different ending and the relationship between the ‘dominant woman’, or ‘top’ as it is often known in the BDSM lifestyle... and the ‘submissive woman’, or ‘bottom’, is such that it plays with the common notion of just who is in the dominant position in the relationship. The apparent top in the film is called Cynthia and played just beautifully by Sidse Babett Knudsen. Her apparent bottom is called Evelyn and played, also very well, by Chiara D'Anna. However, after the first ten minutes, it becomes apparent that the relationship is suffering from a very common malady in ‘the scene’ known as ‘topping from the bottom’. In any safe, sane and consensual (SSC) or even RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink) BDSM relationship, it’s recognised that the person who takes the submissive role is very much in control of the situation in reality, to a certain extent, due to the exploration of areas within a specific individual’s chosen limits (which he or she will have communicated to their top before hand) and the probable use, although not always, of a safe word to either immediately stop the activity in hand or, depending on how you’re playing, alter the flow of the session (referred to as a ‘release word’ in this film, presumably to cater to an audience who might be unfamiliar with the concept and named after a type of moth, Pinastri).

When this gets out of hand in real life is when the demands made by the submissive role get very specific, profuse and prescriptive in their nature. How much topping from the bottom is happening is basically based on just how much the dominant individual is comfortable with allowing their sub to shape the play... most dominants tend to nip this in the bud fairly quickly or just terminate the relationship (from what I’ve been led to believe, you understand, honest guv) but there are, equally, cases where this kind of dynamic in the relationship can work quite well. The one depicted in the movie, however, doesn’t seem to be working all that well at times and is more about the way the two central protagonists test their own limits and how it stretches and forces them to examine their love for each other.

This is actually beautifully done and the scenes of, for instance, Cynthia constantly drinking in order to ensure a timely supply of urine to pee into her subs mouth as a ‘punishment’ is one of a few little quirky details which make this film worth watching (although her constant drinking was making me very thirsty throughout the course of the film... couldn’t wait to get out of there and grab a bottle of water). The acting is truly tremendous and is especially comical and simultaneously revealing in a scene where Evelyn is demanding a stern narrative as she masturbates to orgasm and Cynthia can’t keep up and dries up in her monologue... watch Sidse Babett Knudsen’s face in the interchanges between the two in this scene and it’s absolutely wonderful acting.

The film is, like Berberian Sound Studio, a feast of gorgeous and, often, static shot compositions, beautiful experiments in sound design and with a truly amazing butterfly sequence towards the end of the movie. All the characters in this story are specialists in the science of lepidopterology, hence the title of the movie, and the use of various butterflies as a metaphor in the relationship between the two women comes to a kind of ‘visual and audio wipe out’ sequence which is truly dazzling and, quite possibly, very brave of the director in the current climate of audiences primed for movies with more dialogue (indeed, there are vast stretches of the film without the intrusion of dialogue and that’s quite refreshing).

So, yeah, lovely film to look at, brilliant performances, astounding sound design, competent editing and a dazzling score which really deserves a CD release rather than a stupid digital release. The downside for me, however, is it always seems to be a pseudo remake of Scacco Alla Regina (Check To The Queen) and, worse than that, does nothing unexpected or really provocative during its running time. There’s another film out at the moment dealing with BDSM, you might have heard of it, called Fifty Shades Of Grey... it’s been given short shrift by a lot of the BDSM community although I think the reasons given for that, in that it portrays and abusive and non-consensual version of BDSM, are not completely the main motive for that, since a large majority of BDSM literature and art portrays non-consensual activities as the main part of the fantasy (as opposed to the reality). I suspect the case with Fifty Shades Of Grey is more that, because it’s so popular and introduced the concept of BDSM to so many people, the negative portrayal has become a “poster gal” for the community and it’s a bit of a damning and unfortunate one... so I can completely sympathise with the hostile attitude towards it. The Duke Of Burgundy is a film that I was hoping would be the cinematic antidote to the ‘other’ film but, alas, although I suspect it’s more emotionally intelligent and more striking a sample of the art, I fear the attitudes explored in this one to give it the required dramatic weight, make this almost as bad an example, in some ways, of the lifestyle and its practice... although to be fair to Strickland and co, it’s at least a much more responsible exploration of the area.

Ultimately, I was disappointed in this movie, just like I was with his last feature, but I do have to stress here that it is a very beautiful film and if you are not already familiar with the big, broad stroke concepts of the BDSM lifestyle which are covered here, then I’m sure some viewers will get really wrapped up in it and enjoy it on a more visceral level than I myself was able to respond to it. So I guess, my recommendation would be, if you’re into BDSM then don’t expect to see anything you haven’t seen before. If you’re into European exploitation movies of the 1960s and 1970s then, again, don’t expect too much. If you are less familiar with these areas then you will probably have a blast with this movie... the texture and tone of which is like an incredible painting you’ll want to reach out and eat. Don’t expect ot see anything explicit in this movie (seriously, this should have been at most a 15 certificate, if not a 12) or you’ll be less disappointed for your expectations... that’s probably the best way to go into this one, I think. Without too many great expectations.

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