Monday, May 4, 2015

The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

British filmmaker Peter Strickland, who left us wanting more with the excellent "Berberian Sound Studio" (2012) returns with his highly anticipated new film. In this reinvention of sorts, Strickland dabbles with material usually found in lowbrow underground sexploitation cinema and translates it to more refined cinema by adding plenty of art-house polish to it. "The Duke of Burgundy" (2014) is an atypical Gothic romance that explores an aberrant relationship between two women, with strikingly deviant ideas of intimacy, based on bondage and discipline, and rife with lurid fetishism.

Oh no, this is no "Fifty Shades of Grey", that god-awful watered down romantic chick flick with zero depth, posing as an erotic drama. Strickland's film is serious cinema, a mature product, oozing oodles of sensuality and he doesn't even need any explicit on-screen sex or nudity to deliver potent erotica.

Strickland transports us right into the world of a Gothic ghost story. A solitary castle-like mansion surrounded by woods and streams is the center of all the action. A beautiful, 40-something lepidopterist, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) resides there alone, with her enormous collection of pinned moths and butterflies. She has an odd looking maid by the name of Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna). Evelyn has a queer stare most of the times, sometimes unaffected, and other times meek and curious. If Evelyn makes a mistake she is punished in a sexually domineering way, sometimes in kinkier ways, perhaps involving urolagnia! It is soon revealed, that the two women are in fact lovers, indulging in this kind of servant-master role-playing, for kicks, as a means of gratification. The rest of the film examines the shifting dynamics and co-dependencies in this strange bond, as its limits are tested and the dominant and the submissive appear to switch places.

Like his earlier films, "Duke.." is inherently a mood piece, a visual and aural feast, employing all of the oneiric aesthetics, thereby rendering a hypnotic quality to it. Right from the title credits, accompanying a haunting song by Cat's Eyes, Strickland gives us a glimpse of the quirks to come. Credits like "Perfume by:..." and "Dress and Lingerie by:..." bring a smile of curious delight and it becomes clear, that the ride isn't going to be entirely straightforward. 

The world in the film is unreal, albeit not entirely unrealistic like an elaborate fantasy world. This could be more like a scene from an idyllic dream or a nightmare of loneliness, depending on how you look at it. All those gorgeously captured frames, give off the vibe of a Gothic ghost story, as mentioned before, especially in the scenes indoor in the dark, with all the baroque interiors and furniture. The score and sound design isn't as meticulous and noteworthy as in "Berberian Sound Studio" but it still exists as an essential part of the package.

A largely striking aspect of Strickland's world is the lack of men. There's not a single male person to be found in the narrative dominated entirely by an all-female cast. Adding an absurdly surreal touch to the proceedings is the conspicuous presence of mannequins sitting in an audience in the Lepidopterology seminars.

These seminars and gatherings and one single scene with a carpenter are perhaps the only instances when we see more characters on screen. All of the other times, the focus and our attention is directed towards the two leading ladies. The study of the insects serves as a major parallel to the story if we take into consideration their life cycle progression. Much like these women are studying the species under a microscope, we are given front row seats with 3D glasses, and made to witness the development of this strangely intriguing relationship between the women. 

The exchanges between the two range from sweet to downright brazen to the level of discomfort. A palpable, irresistible force is at play. Strickland keeps most of the kinky action off-screen, thereby playing mischief with the viewer and poking his/her voyeuristic tendencies, much like how only bits and parts of Cynthia's comely physique are visible to a curious Evelyn as she peeps through the keyhole! Given that their relationship involves rituals or role playing to satiate, most activities are repeated and recur throughout the film, like a daily cycle. This furthers the intrigue by giving the narrative the form of a recurring dream. The theme of ritualistic repetition that is an important part of their existence, mirrors the repeating life cycle of the moths and butterflies. It is no surprise that "The Duke of Burgundy" is a title derived from a rare butterfly species, Hamearis lucina. 

There are several scenes filmed through mirrors or glasses, showcasing distorted or multiple reflections perhaps hinting at the characters' mental distortions and twisted fantasies. At one point, the camera longingly scans Cynthia's outfit from the bottom to the top as Evelyn, on her knees, caresses her, real slowly. Cynthia's torso in this outfit strangely resembles the back of a moth. Such slow, lingering shots are aplenty in the film, kind of like a visual meditation. The camera sometimes gazes at multicoloured soap bubbles and gives them time to pop before our eyes. It also pans across similarly diversely coloured panties strung out to dry, pretty much like the series of butterflies of various colours pinned into exhibits in Cynthia's study.

Role-playing and the desire for surprises by one partner makes it ambiguous as to what is enacted and what is real. It is also a matter of debate as to how much is real and how much imagined. We often hear words and whispers that don't appear to be part of a first-hand dialog. Could they be voices in someone's head? Evelyn is also often seen with a steady gaze at the camera, perhaps an indication that she drifts off into daydreams. In one superlative scene of hallucinatory brilliance, Strickland makes it clear that at least some part is imagined as the camera slowly zooms in and out of the dark recesses between a woman's legs. 

On paper, the plot of "The Duke of Burgundy" may seem thin. But there is no denying that this is one exquisitely crafted romantic psychodrama that offers a lot to ponder on. Evoking memories of some of Luis Bunuel's best films, especially "That Obscure Object of Desire" (1977) and even Joseph Losey's "The Servant" (1963), "Duke.." is not all style and eccentricities. There is a lot more at the core. At the heart of all the fantasies and the fetishes is a strong desire that borders on obsession. The women's love for each other almost rivals their love for the butterflies; an obsessive love that is best expressed only through physical bondage; the butterflies are pinned, and partners are tied and locked up in caskets.

Score: 9/10

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