Review – The Duke Of Burgundy

It’s something of a paradoxical quirk that the work of one of Britain’s most vital and uniquely gifted filmmakers should be so un-British in its style and subject matter.

The Duke Of Burgundu -

The Duke Of Burgundy – “a seductive and singular work of real vision”

Peter Strickland’s assured debut Katalin Varga (2009) saw the writer/director up sticks and decamp to Transylvania to get his slippery revenge drama made, while the giallo horror movie Toby Jones’s unassuming foley artist works on stirs up an increasingly frenzied hornet’s nest in his remarkable follow-up Berberian Sound Studio (2012).

This, the third beguiling motion picture from Strickland serves as yet another reminder that this is a filmmaker who resolutely refuses to be bound by the trappings of genre cinema.

Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) tends to Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) in the

Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) tends to Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) in the “beguiling” The Duke Of Burgundy

Whilst cinephiles will fall over themselves to spot the references to the sleazy Euro-erotica of the 1970s (movies that were generally seen as being more notable for their lascivious titles than for their quality) the film ostensibly tips its hat to, The Duke Of Burgundy operates at a far more sophisticated level in its examination of the BDSM-charged relationship between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara d’Anna).

Set in a nondescript wooded locale seemingly lifted from the pages of a Grimm fairytale, the interplay between Cynthia and Evelyn appears to suggest a mistress/servant dynamic, with Cynthia the dominant sadist who lazes around whilst ordering Evelyn to shine her boots or scrub her underwear.

However, the film’s sleight of hand is gradually uncovered as the give-and-take between the two is revealed to be a role play that, as the cracks of repetition start to show, suggests the power dynamic isn’t quite as one-sided as we first thought.

The butterfly effect: Chiara D'Anna's Evelyn in The Duke Of Burgundy

The butterfly effect: Chiara D’Anna’s Evelyn in The Duke Of Burgundy

Cynthia and Evelyn exist in a world apparently devoid of men, while they and the community around them are all lepidopterists – collectors and studiers of moths and butterflies (the eponymous Duke of Burgundy is a reference to the species of butterfly, rather than a male ruler).

The numerous cases of carefully arranged butterflies and moths displayed around Cynthia’s abode seem at first to suggest a visual metaphor for the controlling master/servant dynamic, but as their relationship metamorphoses into something more striking and free-floating the symbolism of the butterfly becomes crystallised.

As stylised as the film is (the bucolic production design and Nic Knowland’s sun-dappled cinematography are a joy), Stickland’s genuinely funny script is full of absurdist flourishes, from the mannequins sat at the back of a lepidopterary lecture to the straight-faced suggestion by Fatma Mohamed’s elaborately dressed Carpenter of a “human toilet” as a potential birthday present for Evelyn.

Sidse Babett Knudsen's Cythia in The Duke Of Burgundy

Sidse Babett Knudsen’s Cynthia in The Duke Of Burgundy

Whilst the more intimate scenes between the two leads are undoubtedly sensual, it never veers into leering exploitation and is almost always subverted by an amusing look or witty line (Cynthia’s declaration to Evelyn that “I need an instruction manual to get into half the things you buy me” being a case in point).

Both d’Anna and Knudsen play off each other beautifully and breathe an enchanting and sensitive life force into an unorthodox and complex bond; one that is more fragile and hypnotic than a butterfly and woozily evoked by the stirrings of Cat’s Eyes’ dreamlike soundtrack. Meanwhile, a stunningly simple throwaway dissolve from woodland to grass has to be one of the most breathtaking shots of the year.

A seductive and singular work of real vision, The Duke Of Burgundy will take flight in your imagination and confirms Strickland as an auteur of major standing.

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Review – Berberian Sound Studio

There’s something wonderfully outrageous about fruit and vegetables being used by serious, technically-gifted individuals to represent the sound of a body slamming onto the ground or a neck being broken.

It’s a side of filmmaking normally hidden from the audience, a process that takes place long after the cameras have stopped rolling and the actors have moved on to other projects.

Berberian Sound Studio

Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio – “a masterclass in sustained dread”

In director Peter Strickland’s astonishing Berberian Sound Studio, this is turned completely on its head, wherein the mechanics of sound reproduction (known as foley) take precedence. Moreover, Strickland sets the film in the 1970s, when warm and fuzzy analogue equipment like tape recorders and magnetic tape was used, in contrast to the clinical digital apparatus employed today.

Strickland used a modest inheritance and relocated to Transylvania to shoot Katalin Varga, a striking, outré revenge drama that marked him out as one to watch. The writer/director has taken a massive leap forward with his sophomore feature, a head-spinning psychological horror-thriller that plunges buttoned up sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) into a frenzied whirlpool of his own making.

Gilderoy has flown from Britain to Italy to work on The Equestrian Vortex, what he assumes is the sort of nature documentary he has made his stock in trade from his garden shed in Dorking.

Unbeknownst to him, The Equestrian Vortex is in actuality a sadistic, stomach-churning giallo horror film, the sort of supernaturally-charged splatter-fests made famous by such maestros of the genre as Dario Argento and Mario Bava.

Toby Jones as Gilderoy in Berberian Sound Studio

Toby Jones as Gilderoy in Berberian Sound Studio

As the images of torture, rape and mutilation are projected to Gilderoy for the first time, we see his facial reaction contort between voyeuristic intrigue and disgust. All the audience sees of the film are its opening credits, with its blood-red palette and shots of terrified women.

Sitting alongside the film’s irritable, unforgiving producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) in the claustrophobic sound studio, he goes to work recording marrows being hacked to pieces, cabbages being stabbed and radishes having their tops violently ripped off (all of which are left to rot in a none-too subtle moment of symbolism). He also records the bone-chilling screams of several women, in particular the paranoid Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou), who is angry for allowing herself to be exploited by the film’s suave, oily director Santini (Antonio Mancino) and warns Gilderoy against making the same mistake.

A homesick stranger in a strange land, he gradually finds himself being dragged deeper into the cesspool of moral filth and degradation that is playing out on screen and clings onto letters from his mother describing the untainted day-to-day mundanities his increasingly fractured psyche is losing a grip of.

Gilderoy allows his work to overwhelm him, in much the same way as Gene Hackman’s suveilance expert Harry Caul in The Conversation, and before long he’s no longer able to differentiate between reality and his nightmarish paranoia where each disturbing sound is amplified and the silence is almost as deafening.

Psychological horror at its very best in Berberian Sound Studio

Psychological horror at its very best in Berberian Sound Studio

Strickland fearlessly takes his protaganist  into a vortex of his own making and nods to David Lynch and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona in the way he portrays Gilderoy’s mental breakdown on screen. It’s deeply unsettling stuff, rivetingly played by Jones in a career-best turn. Jones has one of those faces that can exude gentility and cruelty at the same time (if ever a remake of 10 Rillington Place was made, he would be perfect as unassuming serial killer John Christie) and we’re left to make our own mind up as to whether Gilderoy’s experiences have corrupted him or merely held a mirror to the darkness he (and we) fear has always been there.

The process of producing the sounds are as lovingly shot as the equipment on which they are recorded (Strickland holds the camera on tape spools or the analogue sound desk). In spite of the film’s suffocating grip, there are many moments of black humour and scenes of real beauty, in particular when Gilderoy shows his colleagues how he can create the sound of a UFO by scraping a light bulb against a wire brush.

For a film where sound is everything, foley artist Heikki Kossi must get special mention, while ethereal electro band Broadcast provide a suitably haunting score.

Utterly unique, Berberian Sound Studio is a masterclass in sustained dread and the first of what could well be a slew of masterpieces from this vital, gifted filmmaker.