The UK film industry is one of the most restrictive in the world when it comes to films full of imagination and ambition; not to knock the work of realists like Ken Loach or Mike Leigh but filmmakers such as Terry Gilliam, Ken Russell or Nicolas Roeg have struggled throughout the years to get the funding they need for their vision. This however seems to be changing slightly with filmmakers like Ben Wheatley or a film like last year’s Under The Skin, as well as producers like Jeremy Thomas who always funds a film over his own taste than its commercial prospects. One such film is Peter Strickland’s latest, The Duke of Burgundy.
Strickland’s previous film Berberian Sound Studio I couldn’t engage with despite a rave review from critic Mark Kermode who I have enormous respect for. The Duke of Burgundy is a different kettle of fish and makes me want to give Berberian Sound Studio another shot. Strickland is obsessed with the cinema of the ’60s and ’70s and like he did with the Giallo in Berberian Sound Studio takes a genre, this time the strange world of European Sexploitation which often had horror or fantasy elements, and makes it with such taste and restraint. The Duke of Burgundy stemmed out of a commission to remake Jess Franco’s Lorna the Exorcist.
The Duke of Burgundy is first and foremost a love story between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) in a BDSM relationship. The world the film inhabits is an otherworldly land which is deliberately somewhere in Europe (the film was shot in Hungary) where only women exist so the notion of homosexuality or heterosexuality doesn’t even exist. This is an intelligent way of using a very dated genre that is often considered sexist to put forward thinking notions of sexuality. Cynthia is a lepidopterist, an expert on butterflies and the title is a reference to a butterfly. The two leads are mostly unknown to film audiences and both give fearless believable performances in a film that could have dipped into parody.
The sex is depicted cleverly off-screen, I’m kind of shocked by the 18 certificate and find it even prudish that it’s simply for the idea of the relationship than for nudity when there is none. It’s obviously a film intended for an intelligent adult audience but it’s so tame in its depiction of BDSM.This all may seem like serious stuff and to some extent it is but Strickland has a playful streak. With the opening credits including credits for the perfume and lingerie, and with the increasingly silly master and servant games the two play, it’s hard not to laugh along with the film.
Despite some deliberate silly moments the film gives class to a neglected genre, but it also pulls from Luis Buñuel, Walerian Borowczyk, Czech New Wave (a movement that is constantly unloading its riches recently) like Morgiana, and even has visual sparks from Daisies. It also has the otherworldly feel of Peter Weir’s early films like The Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave. The is helped enormously by the lush cinematography by Nic Knowland who worked on Berberian Sound Studio but also films by British fantasists the Quay Brothers. The film climaxes with a surreal 10 minute psychosexual dream sequence that is a beautiful piece of experimental filmmaking at it’s finest. The set design is unique and beautiful and when you find out the bathroom tiles are actually stickers and most of the wallpaper came out of print-outs from the internet, the more impressed you become.
The film is a sensual fairy tale that is as open ended as something like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. This is topped off by a late 60s inspired psychedelic folk soundtrack by Cat’s Eyes which is reminiscent of everything from 60s girl groups to Ennio Morricone to even the darker underbelly of soft rockers The Carpenters. Few British films (I’m lucky if it’s one a year) stir me in a way The Duke of Burgundy did and it’s a haunting, mysterious film that down the line will become a classic of brave imaginative filmmaker that is so rare in today’s age of by the books committee filmmaking.
The disc includes director’s commentary, a 10 minute interview with Peter Strickland, a stills gallery, deleted scenes, Cat’s Eyes promo, and the short film Conduct Phase.
Genre: Drama |Distributor: Artificial Eye Film |BD Release Date: 27th April 2015 (UK) | Rating:18 | Director: Peter Strickland | Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, Eugenia Caruso | Buy: The Duke of Burgundy BR [Blu-ray]