Thursday, 19 February 2015

Mistress and servant: "The Duke of Burgundy"

Since 2009's jolting Katalin Varga, a rape-revenge thriller that cut a notable dash through the Transylvanian countryside, the British writer-director Peter Strickland has been in retreat. 2012's Berberian Sound Studio found a speccy, techy English backroom boffin losing his bearings - and his marbles - while stuck indoors redubbing an Italian slasher movie, and now Strickland has made the kind of film that might well have been dubbed on the Berberian soundstages: The Duke of Burgundy, both homage to and variant on those kinky-gerlinky Eurotrash thrillers churned out in the 1970s by such wayward auteurs as Jess Franco, Harry Kümel and Walerian Borowczyk. (Google 'em, by all means, but be sure to keep Safe Search toggled.)

As in much porn, the set-ups of these fetish items were invariably of less importance than the eccentricities they were dressed up with, the authorial peccadillos they so conspicuously flaunted. Duke announces its own credentials with another of Strickland's stylised opening credit sequences, tweaking Berberian's retro fonts and design. Dress and lingerie here apparently come care of one Andrea Flesch, the perfume via Je Suis Gizelle. You might start to smell a rat around the time the production design is billed as the work of one Pater Sparrow. A similar element of wind-up runs through the narrative that is subsequently unfurled before us.

Two fortysomething women are playing sub-dom power games in a remote country house. The imposing Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen, from Borgen) looks to be the one firmly in control, dispatching the meeker Evelyn (Chiara d'Anna) to clean first her study, then her shoes and panties. All, inevitably, is not quite what it seems, though, for at an early stage, we gather that Lady Cyn is in fact Evelyn's loving and devoted servant, treating her like the dirt she wants to be. We're meant, surely, to view their cohabitation as analogous to the grim power games that go on in many relationships, although the sight of Cynthia using Evelyn's face for a chair is clearly there as no more than joky titillation.

More intriguing is a self-referential streak that again connects the film to its predecessor. As they lie in each other's arms at night, Cynthia and Evelyn give one another notes on how to improve their, as it were, performance during daylight hours. Wigs are put on; cue cards are swapped. An alternative title comes to suggest itself: Celine and Julie Go Muffdiving. Strickland's film is at least knowingly niche, upfront from the off about its sniggering evasion of emotion or seriousness: it frames its musty, secondhand fantasy in elegant quotation marks, then mists it with a heady dash of Je Suis Gizelle. (Many have fallen for it.) Yet like its producer Ben Wheatley's A Field in England, The Duke of Burgundy never loses its air of trainspotter cinema: a film pitched at viewers apt to produce notebooks from anorak pockets, who can feel supremely smug about all the references it allows them to tick off.

You can try and argue there's something radical in Strickland's decision to cast actresses of a certain age in roles a Franco or Tinto Brass would have filled with pliable starlets; the decision also gives Duke's central relationship the tantalising feel of a continuation - rather than a reproduction - of what was going on in all those 1970s films. (Perhaps Cynthia and Evelyn have been playing these games for so long they need a bondage bed to freshen things up.) Still, though, the film relies far too much on audience complicity: you'll need to develop more of a connection with these two pallid, quivering, overdubbed performers than I could in order to find it in any way stimulating. Maybe you just have to like Borgen. Fifteen minutes of them grinding each other's noses into the carpets was enough for me, so I was antsy long before the final-reel headtrip by which Strickland further seeks to shake everybody up.

This will cap a most excellent night out for lepidopterists, at least. The Duke of Burgundy takes its name from a species of butterfly, and is filled with butterflies, both living and dead: three films into his career, Strickland is shaping up as a keen collector and talented mounter of images that catch the eye. Yet in this instance, it's as though this now 41-year-old director has spent the past year reshaping some specialist porn he found torn up in a bush. You can admire the assiduousness with which he's approached his task, certainly, but in the downtime between the whipping and the bootlicking, you might also find time to wonder - given that this director surely had his pick of the projects after Berberian's critical success - whether there isn't something just a teensy bit sad about the whole endeavour.

The Duke of Burgundy opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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