Arthouse reviews: The Duke of Burgundy

By ArtHouse Crouch End, 01 Mar 2015

dukesofburgundy

Unable to agree on this one, this week we’ve given you two opposing views of The Duke of Burgundy. We leave it to the discerning Arthouse audience to decide for themselves.
 
‘For a salutary lesson in what’s gone so terribly wrong with British art cinema this is the film to see. In the space of two tedious hours Peter Strickland takes us through a checklist of what he imagines to be the essential ingredients of a European art house movie. So we have the bucolic French setting, so absolutely de rigeur. Check. The stilted dialogue. Check. The longeurs. The homage (pronounced a la francais of course) to all the great auteurs of the past. No stone is left unturned. No cliché deemed too hackneyed to be omitted. Music? Of course, the more obviously referential the better. Symbolism? This one has it in spades. Like a monkey with a typewriter Strickland has given birth not so much to a Shakespearian sonnet as to a dog’s dinner, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.
 
Which is really a shame. Because what British cinema needs right now are directors of true vision and originality who can see beyond the pretensions and banality of the Greenaways and Stricklands. Finance and distribution are, for once, not the problem. This film is backed by Channel Four who really deserve better.
 
It’s not without its merits I suppose. The cinematography can be quite stunning and the soundtrack occasionally rises above the banal. The lingerie, for those who like that sort of thing, has its own mention in the opening credits. But it would take more than pretty pictures, sombre music and frilly knickers to rescue this slow moving curate’s egg of a movie.
 
Not everyone will agree of course. My companions were divided in their opinions. Likewise the Arthouse audience, some undoubtedly no strangers to the Sapphic pleasures. Decide for yourself. As Strickland would no doubt put it, a chacon sa gout.
 
A terrible thought inserted itself into my brain as I sat through the Duke of Burgundy. Only the arrival of the real Duke himself, John Wayne, in a jeep or better still on horseback, to knock some sense into these protagonists could rescue this farrago.’
 
On the other hand…

‘Needless to say you’ve missed the point and in the process a beautifully sensual and seductive film about nothing more pretentious than a romantic love story between two women. It might be told in a dreamlike and surreal way but that doesn’t distract from the fact that it’s about the very real stuff that interests us all in relationships – love and happiness.
 
The referential aspects are not about Strickland trying to impress with his art house credentials (why would he need to do that with the brilliant Berberian Sound Studio under his belt?) but about a story of two women acting out a piece of intimate theatre, following a closely scripted elaborate fantasy. The film may be mimicking retro European art house cinema, but that’s because it’s the creation of the two characters. It’s their performance and it’s their cultural references.
 
The first scene is cleverly replayed from different angles and you slowly begin to question who is in control in their relationship, and as you do so your sympathies begin to alter. It about the price you’re prepared to pay, and the lengths you’re prepared to go to in order to keep your partner happy and the shifting power dynamics involved. It’s done all the more cleanly because there are no men involved, which means it’s not confused by ideas of male dominance. In fact, there are no men at all in the film (perhaps, Ed, this explains your need to be rescued by John Wayne), and all the women are scientists, so there’s no obvious female stereotyping either. The extremes people will go to please their lovers also makes it very funny, as well as very bizarre.
 
Visually it’s absolutely enchanting, seducing you into the enclosed world of a fairytale castle that seems to be merging into the surrounding forest, a confined place with little sense of time, which intensifies the feelings of intimacy around the relationship. You feel enveloped in the silk, lace, stockings and other costume paraphernalia from their theatrical wardrobe. The soundtrack and the butterfly imagery perfectly capture the entrapment and freeing of the women from the fantasy as the oppressive rules of the sado-masochistic game begin collapsing.
 
I thought it would be hard to believe she could be anyone other than the prime minister of Denmark, but Sidse Babett Knudsen as Cynthia gives a tremendously moving and captivating performance as Cynthia, and it’s difficult to take your eyes off Chiara D’Anna as Evelyn.
 
So not hackneyed or clichéd, but rather a definite must-see for Crouch End’s Arthouse audience.’