by Allan Fish
(UK 2014 104m) DVD1/2
Let’s see if you’ve done your job properly
p Andrew Starke d/w Peter Strickland ph Nic Knowland ed Mathias Fekete m Cat’s Eyes art Pater Sparrow, Renato Cseh, Zsuzsa Mihalek cos Andrea Flesch sound Martin Pavey, Rob Entwistle
Sidse Babett Knudsen (Cynthia), Chiara d’Anna (Evelyn), Monica Swinn (Lorna), Fatma Mohamed (the carpenter), Kata Bartsch (Dr Lurida), Eugeni Caruso (Dr Fraxini),
Upon the release of his Berberian Sound Studio a few years ago, Peter Strickland was feted in many circles, especially by critics with a solid grounding in Italian horror and giallo. Sound really was the key character in that film, and yet, while Toby Jones’ typically committed performance deserved all the praise levelled at it, the film itself tended to fade from memory even as one was watching it. Intriguing, yes, but not yet visionary.
The Duke of Burgundy is related to the earlier film in that same key element; sound. The sound designers and technicians are not normally credited herein, but not to do so here would be like denying the very fabric of the film. Burgundy is an erotic film but with no traditional visual eroticism. It concerns two women. One, Cynthia, a lepidopterist, would seem to employ the other, Evelyn, as a sort of maid, but she’s a cruel taskmaster, humiliating her, physically demeaning her, essentially enslaving her. Yet this is a voluntary slavery that becomes all the more disturbing when one realises that these ‘scenes’ of slavery are in actual fact carefully worded and rehearsed roleplays between two lovers.
Strickland’s film is remarkable in many ways, not the least of which being that there is no masculine perspective here; indeed, no male character appears at all, immediately distancing itself from the trash element of say The Story of O or, perish the thought, Fifty Shades of Grey. Yet even the notion of Sapphic relationships based on submission is not a new one. One thinks back to Campanile’s The Slave, but that was an exercise in stylish decadence which seized countless opportunities to show its slave, Eric Rohmer’s discovery Haydée Politoff, in a state of undress. Here Strickland gives us not the slightest glimpse of censorable flesh. Burgundy’s eroticism is primarily in the mind, for he knows that allowing the mind’s eye to wander, to run away with itself, can be a greater aphrodisiac than any conventionally explicit sex scene. All of which is not to say that the film isn’t visual, because it is exactly the fact that it is still so visual that makes it so unforgettable. Yet the images we see are essentially symbolic, almost proxy to our fantasies. When Evelyn is made to wash Cynthia’s underwear, she’s explicitly told not to use the machine. They’re hand-washed, so Strickland can use the sensuousness of the hands in the act of washing as a motif.
The most infamous scene, however, avoids visual motifs entirely, in which Cynthia decides to punish Evelyn for not doing her job properly by pissing in her mouth. True, we thankfully don’t see the act, but we all too audibly hear it from the other side of the bathroom door. It then becomes in itself a motif for the reversal of roles in which scenes are repeated, perhaps, and in which, while Cynthia retains her mistress role, she is in essence the one trying to please; simultaneous submission and domination. In doing so what could have been perceived as thoroughly nasty achieves a sort of shattering, tender depravity. Strickland is helped by his collaborators, not only the sound designers but Nic Knowland’s delicious photography, and the utter commitment of his two leads (especially Knudsen, impressing with the same immaculate English glimpsed in Borgen), who not coincidentally could pass as sisters, adding an almost incestuous subtext to proceedings. Not forgetting the part played by Zsuzsa Mihalek’s intricate set decoration, a feast in itself. With elements of Jean Genet, the entomological detail of Imamura and continual overt and subliminal nods to Borowczyk, it’s a film to ravish the eyes but trouble the other senses, as if being told repeatedly in a very low voice “did I say you could sit?” For what I am about to receive may my lady make me truly thankful.