“Fuck it, I’ll have the dessert”
That was the feeling you got when watching Peter Strickland’s previous film Berberian Sound Studio, a completely indulgent, self contained homage to his beloved Giallo horror films. There was no message about contemporary society to be relayed here, just an orgy of gaudy colours, creepy sounds and gore, straight out of a Dario Argento or Mario Bava film. Although you could level accusations of self indulgence at Strickland, it was also refreshing to see a film that enjoyed itself on its own terms, unwilling to pander to modern day cinema.
Strickland continues his nostalgic reminisces in his latest film The Duke of Burgundy. While Berberian took the Italian giallo horrors as its muse, Strickland looks to the softcore erotica of Jess Franco and 60’s/70’s Eastern European art cinema for inspiration. The narrative revolves around Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a domineering owner of a picturesque villa in a rural locale, and her submissive, timid maid Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), who arrives everyday by bicycle to do the chores. It quickly becomes clear that this is an S & M relationship, but as the film progresses the balance of power becomes increasingly confused.
The film is very atmospheric, its ethereal, dreamy air conjuring comparisons to staples such as Valerie and her Week of Wonders (Broadcast, the composers for Berberian, were hugely influenced by Valerie) and Picnic at Hanging Rock. The sets are deliciously decadent and decorative, while Nicholas D. Knowland’s cinematography is inventive and often beautiful, utilising many a soft focus shot, treated in the editing with cross fades. The score by Cat’s Eyes is also very evocative, using delicately psychedelic orchestration. Strickland has made a film for the senses, even going so far as to credit perfumers in the opening sequence, a tongue in cheek joke if there ever was one.
All this suggests The Duke of Burgundy should be a terrific, distinctive film…and yet, it’s not. While Berberian was ultimately little more than homage, it knew its limitations and kept the audience intrigued and involved to its end. Unfortunately Duke feels more like an exercise than a film, and there is not enough narrative drive here to keep the viewer enthralled. It’s a thin idea taken past its limit, testing the audience’s patience. The two central performances by Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna are stilted and often wooden, struggling to deal with Strickland’s laboured dialogue.
There is not enough real psychological insight into the two characters here and it feels flimsy. A film maker like Bergman was brave enough to narrow his focus on just two characters and relished the claustrophobia, yet Strickland fails to elicit any real drama out of his leads or script. In interviews surrounding the film Strickland had stated a desire to make a film that doesn’t conform to ideas of good taste or sensibility, a film with the potential to be outrageous. Which is a shame, because he has made a film about sadomasochistic lesbian lovers which is deadly dull, and that is quite an achievement. Slow clap.