Skip to main content

This is all I ever dreamed about.

The Duke of Burgundy
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Is Peter Strickland on a mission to redress every ’70s exploitation subgenre as critically lauded art fare? His last film, Berberian Sound Studio, took its cues (most audio, rather than anything grizzly) from Italian giallo. Now he’s at it again, turning to the Euro sleaze of Jess Franco. I’ve only seen a couple of Franco’s pictures (about a hundredth of his filmography, then), but his influence is readily identifiable from the freeze frame titles on in. The Duke of Burgundy is sumptuous, seductive and hypnotic, but it left me admiring from afar. Which was essentially also my reaction to Berberian Sound Studio.


There’s more than a touch of Peter Greenaway to Strickland’s style and careful compositions, albeit with greater genre awareness and slightly less attention given to the rhythms of image and score. The title song, from Cat’s Eyes (Faris Badwan and Rachel Zeffira) could come straight out of a ‘70s woodland psych-out. The rest of the score tends to the chorally elegant, erotic and dreamy. Which fits the general tone. Dream-like, but in a very precise way.


Just like Berberian, Strickland positions himself to claim classiness and acclaim by eschewing the very substance that attracted to audiences to the genres he transforms. With Berberian there isn’t a mutilation, slashing or dismemberment in sight. With Duke, there’s not a sniff of nudity, and the erotic content is very much strained.


Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) meet for bondage and discipline sessions, the older Cynthia playing the dominant employer and Evelyn the submissive maid. Evelyn cleans the house. And cleans the house. And cleans the house some more. Cynthia reprimands her for doing a poor job and eventually pees in her mouth. Such is their sensual routine.


It quickly becomes clear (well, at Strickland’s elegant pace, quickly is an exaggeration) that this is all at Evelyn’s behest, however. Cynthia is the reluctant and weary partner, fulfilling her role for fear of losing her younger catch. There’s a sense of inevitability that this cannot last, but a clinging on by both partners that leads to emotional impasse come the conclusion. We hear Evelyn’s repeated voiceover breathlessly state, “This is all I ever dreamed about”, yet it is very far from Cynthia’s greatest desire. Ultimately neither will be happy in their rehearsed abandon; Cynthia cannot wait to exit the room when conversation turns to purchasing a human toilet.


Strickland’s picture isn’t so complex in terms of character, although both actresses, and particularly Borgen’s Knudsen, lend great depth to their roles. Like the distracting and possibly or possibly not relevant study of Lepidoptera, sequences play out in miniature and through repetition. So Strickland creates a rhythm that is both fascinating and detached. This may be the intent. We study the characters just as they study moths.


There’s a deadpan sense of humour too, such that, while the emotional centre is quite sad and affecting, there’s a sense that this is all an elaborate game to Strickland (another thing he has in common with Greenaway; intellectual remove). He has created a world of undefined era, one apparently matriarchal to the extent that there isn’t a man to be seen. But for no discernable reason. And there are mannequins sitting in the audience at lectures (apparently a nod to Franco). I particularly liked “Featured Insects in Order of Appearance” during the end credits.


Like Berberian Sound Studio, the soundscape of The Duke of Burgundy is fascinating, sometimes resembling like a Doctor Who sound effects record (except the subjects are macro-acoustic moth sounds). Both pictures feature a central figure isolated at their centre, one by work and the other by pleasure. Strickland’s films are to be admired, and Nic Knowland’s cinematography is to be venerated, but they lend themselves to respect rather than adoration.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

If you could just tell me what those eyes have seen.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm on the one hand doesn’t feel overly like a Rodriguez film, in that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus – but on the other, it doesn’t feel particularly like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. Despite that, there’s something likeable about the whole ludicrously expensive enterprise that is Alita: Battle Angel, a willingness to be its own kind of distinctive misfit misfire.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).