Tuesday, 7 October 2014

LFF 2014:
The Duke Of Burgundy

If there's one thing I've learned to expect from a Peter Strickland film, it's the unexpected. I was surprised in Katalin Varga by a farmer in a neck brace and very small pants; in Berberian Sound Studio I did not predict that the film would melt to reveal a documentary on the English countryside, and before watching The Duke Of Burgundy I was unprepared for an end crawl which mentions every insect that appears in the film, as well as a credit for the film's "Human Toilet Consultants".

But while The Duke Of Burgundy is certainly odd enough to present the audience with ideas they haven't seen before, it's probably Strickland's most accessible film to date. Its two protagonists (who, like every other cast member, are female - this might be the most Bechdel-friendly film ever made) live in an unspecified country at an indistinct time; the suggestion that their story is a universal one is immediate. They spend all their time engaged in the obvious twin pastimes of entomology and BDSM (which hopefully explains the peculiar end credits), and the extent of their roleplaying holds a mirror up to every human relationship: how far will you go to be who someone else wants you to be?

Not so much filmed as caressed by the camera, leads Sidse Babett Knudsen (Borgen's Danish PM) and Chiara D'Anna (Berberian's terrible screamer) are a magnetic pairing, the former frequently (un)dressed in the luxurious lingerie which - rightly so - gets its own credit in the gorgeous opening titles. As does the perfume, which seems bonkers, but it works to set up an atmosphere of elegance and decadence which is certainly intoxicating.

Strickland's avant-garde leanings eventually come into play (students of the work of Stan Brakhage will be delighted by an obvious nod to Mothlight), and that might be where he loses some of the audience, but it's also where The Duke Of Burgundy derives its humour: this is funny weird and funny ha-ha at the same time. Intriguing, sexy and mesmeric, it's everything you'd expect from A Peter Strickland Film, i.e. nothing you'd expect at all.

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