With his “rape-revenge” thriller debut Katalin Varga (2009) and its Giallo-horror tribute follow-up Berberian Sound Studio (2012), Peter Strickland immediately announced himself as one of the more distinctive, and certainly one of the most self-consciously “European”, of contemporary British filmmakers. He’s a cine-literate auteur conversant in arcane as well as popular modes and genres, and one who’s able to twist those modes to his own particular ends.
If neither Katalin Varga nor Berberian Sound Studio came out totally satisfying in the end, both pictures nonetheless demonstrated Strickland to be a daring filmmaker capable of giving the at present fairly conservative British industry a much-needed shake up.
Screening in the Official Competition of this year’s London Film Festival, Strickland’s new work, The Duke of Burgundy, is entirely satisfying. It’s a diaphanous dream of a movie, an enthralling erotic reverie that’s by turns funny, disturbing and moving, and that mesmerises and confounds the viewer from its glorious retro title sequence onwards. It’s the kind of film you leave wanting to shout aloud to everyone you meet: “You have to see this movie at once!”
If you respond to it, the picture feels like such an intimate, personal experience that it can be a shock to discover that other people weren’t as entranced as you were (and were, in fact, annoyed or even angered by the movie). It’s a work that’s destined to be divisive, then. But for anyone who cares about contemporary film art, The Duke of Burgundy is an absolute must-see.
It’s a challenge to describe the movie’s premise without making it sound either tacky or banal. But suffice it to say that the film’s focus is the intense bond between two women, Cynthia and Evelyn (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna, in two perfectly-pitched, marvellously complementary performances): lovers whose relationship is based around ritualistic S/M role-play.
Strickland doesn’t provide any back-story to the women’s relationship. Rather, he presents the situation and trusts the viewer to feel and find their own way into it. Ambiguous in terms of period and location (the movie was shot in Hungary), the picture brilliantly succeeds in creating its own hermetic world, spinning from its very particular power-play scenario a thoroughly resonant and relatable exploration of the complexities of loving and being loved.
The film is fascinating, subtle and meticulous in its charting of the women’s shifting dynamic; it’s achingly astute about coupledom—its tensions, compromises, consolations—and insightful about the domestication of fantasy, too. “To be involved in sadomasochism,” wrote Susan Sontag in “Fascinating Fascism”, “is to take part in a sexual theater, a staging of sexuality. Regulars of sadomasochistic sex are expert costumers and choreographers.” The Duke of Burgundy is concerned with what happens when one partner in such a “sexual theater” starts to question the performance, and begins to find that the costume and the choreography essential to their role have become burdens to bear.
Featuring an exclusively female cast, the movie is all about exploring and expressing an ethical erotics of the feminine. We’re made alert, throughout, to the women’s clothing and corporeality: to the crossing and uncrossing of legs, the sliding on and off of stockings (or the ripping of them in a fit of pique), the touching of hair, the application of lipstick. (The film comes complete with opening-credit acknowledgements for lingerie and, yup, perfume.)
There’s sufficient material here for at least a dozen theses on the gaze, the body and the haptic. Yet, for all its intellectualism (and the movie actually features several key lecture scenes, since Cynthia is a lepidopterist studying a variety of butterflies and moths: from whence the movie’s title, not to mention much of its most striking imagery), the film doesn’t come off as overly academic.
Instead, its concerns are communicated through a sumptuous film language that leaves the viewer stunned and swooning. Nicholas D. Knowland’s vibrant cinematography, Renato Cseh’s brilliant art direction, Cat’s Eyes’ gorgeously dreamy score: it’s all “too much”, all excessive, and yet there wasn’t a single moment when I wasn’t avid for more.
Nor does the film feel exploitative. Explicit moments are actually rare, and all the more piquant for how fleeting they are. More “extreme” acts are kept firmly behind closed (bathroom) doors and left to the viewer’s imagination. The movie is the soul of discretion, in this way, and its oscillations between frankness and tact, rhapsody and retraint, are crucial to its allure, making for a fascinating companion piece to the determinedly in-your-face tactics of that other recent male-directed examination of female desire, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour.
The picture becomes properly hallucinatory in a daringly sustained dream sequence. But lest it appear that it’s all exquisite atmospherics, it should be stressed that it’s very funny, too. Some super-droll dialogue (delivered by Knudsen with particular skill) enhances the film’s texture and there’s one truly great comic interlude, involving the visit of a carpenter (Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed) to the two women’s home to arrange for the making of a very special bed.
The ghosts of the movie’s influences and reference points—The Maids, A.S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects, Jesus Franco’s pulpy erotic chillers, Persona, Secretary, I Am Love, Stan Brakhage, David Lynch—are felt. But the picture develops its own entirely distinctive identity, as Strickland subverts our expectations constantly throughout. From various post-screening conversations, I get the impression that some viewers would have been happier if the movie had finally gone darker: maybe with the full-tilt swerve into horror that its overt Gothic flourishes seem to promise. But I’d argue that the film’s turns into tenderness are all the more touching for being so unexpected.
Strickland and his collaborators have poured an extraordinary amount of love, craft, care and imagination into The Duke of Burgundy, then. (And it isn’t even the only film that Strickland has in this year’s Festival: he also co-directed, with Nick Fenton, the excellent almost equally immersive Björk concert film Biophilia: Live). What this innovative director will do next seems almost impossible to predict. But one thing’s for certain: he’s created nothing less than a masterpiece in this thrillingly rich and powerfully seductive work.