The Duke of BurgundyPeter Strickland (UK 2015)Sidse Babett Knudson; Monica Swinn
Viewed: Tyneside Cinema 6 Mar 2015; Ticket: £9.00
Insecticide…the bugs have the excuse of being dead
My feeling after viewing the Duke of Burgundy was that I had viewed a sub-standard piece of formulaic erotica directed by a director so seduced by his own imagery, that he is unable to make films any more.The film dominated by Strickland’s input as writer director feels like a love note to himself, a contemporary exercise in narcissism .
The Duke of Burgundy is an indulgent graceless movie that lacking tensions and ideas reveals Strickland as a film monger, who in this movie exploits form and structure without content to engender the illusion that his films have some sort ofsubstance.
In Katalin Varga Strickland made extensive use of landscape to extend out the emotional mood of his revenge narrative; in Berberian Sound Studio he made similar use of Sound Track to feed and extend the layered narrative threads.In both these movies the form and structure of the material fed directly into the film’s themes and subject matter: revenge in the case of Katalin and in Berberian, a notion of evil.
Visual parallels and sound fx, as types of bolted on imagery can be a director’s cheap trick or a sign pointing to something about the nature of the film.In the sense that they don’t cost much and there is little risk involved in the exploitation of this type of material there needs to be some sort of signage.The cut away landscape shot in a drama demands the audience to make links implicit in the juxtaposition of the two different sources of imagery. The use of suggestive and emotive sound as an intensifier, is a stimulus that imposes itself on the audience’s anticipation ofand grasp of what is happening on screen.It is almost impossible for an audience to either disattend it or disassociate strong suggestive sound effects from accompanying visual material.
These devices used profligately are cheap tricks.Cheap tinny tricks can of course be turned to cinema gold if the director understands something about the purpose of the film. If there is a understanding of the worth, the truth content of the film that corresponds to the extrinsic devices. Sometimes the signage comprises a moral (or historical) step outside of the parameters of the film, an induced reference that connects all the material.This idea of reference which underlies films by Godard, von Trier, Haneka, is lacking in Strickland’s film.
Katalin Varga perhaps justifies its vegetative references, Berberian Sound Studio collapses in on itself unable to bear the weight of its soundscaped and infested netherworlds.The Duke of Burgundy simply retreads Strickland’s previously used tricks into the vacuous premise of a soft porn scenario delivered with high end stylistic politically correct gloss.The action shots of the film, similar to other high end soft porn vehicles (L’Histoire d’O) are characterised by long meaningful looks between the players (meaningful only if the audience decides to impute meaning to them, seeing in them something beyond director’s instructions). These looks are always characterised by a lack of blinking, blinking being an action of the eye, an event, which interrupts the durational flow of the look and hence changes the shot and the director’s imputed meaning of the shot.The mannered non blinking looks are complemented by a equally mannered delivery the the lines of the dialogue.The dialogue is delivered in the sort of dead pan abstracted manner that might belie the production of a Monte Python SM spoof.
So the Duke of Burgundy all gets a bit silly. For all the paraphernalia of seamed stockings, high heeled boots, bodices, bondage and SM persiflage that defines the politically correct relationship between the female leads in their big house, with their big bed, this movie runs on empty.
Interlaid (no pun intended) with this gash formulaic footage are an multiple cutaways to two kinds of visuals:landscapes (mostly trees) as in Varga, and specimen bugs pinned to display boards ( I device I first saw used in the 1965 movie the Collector). The scapes are mostly fixed point shots, the bugs are mostly tracked.The bugs belong to Evelyn who enjoys entomological studies.The multiple intercutting of the bugs and trees seems an act of despair by Strickland.The Duke of Burgundy script, lacking in tensions or externalities has no where to go and ends up going nowhere. Void of meaning Strickland appeals to the conceit of the audience, asking them to find meaning (or perhaps escape) where there is none.To the long looks between Evelyn and Cynthia Strickland adds the trees and the bugs asking the viewer to buy into spliced in manipulation rather than significance. The use of sound effects in the film, likewise replays Berberian, trying to overwhelm the viewer with the suggestion that something is happening, when there is nothing except the presentation of turgid stylisation of SM.
Filled out sound effects and tracks, incessant cutaways to eternalities without referents, endless looks between puppet actresses, are symptomatic of a lazy director, whose film empty of content has only saggy stylised form, characterised by baggy shots, leaden pace and no tension.