Peter Strickland is one of my favourite directors at the moment, and basically I will watch anything he makes. He used an inheritance to make Katalin Varga, a fascinating little 2009 film in which a woman confronts the abusers of her past. It’s set in Romanian speaking Hungary and filmed in that language. But it was with Berberian Sound Studio that he really broke through. This magnificent film starred Toby Jones as a sound recordist who travels to Italy to work on the sound effects for a giallo horror film. He’s used to working on more refined fare. He finds the whole ordeal profoundly affecting.
In Berberian Sound Studio, we never get to see beyond the opening credits of the giallo film that’s being dubbed. But it’s clear from what we do see that Strickland has the tone of those films – especially those from the mid-seventies – off pat. With The Duke of Burgundy he’s essentially made a full film mimicking another type of seventies film – the European sexploitation film.
This is obvious even from the font used in posters for The Duke of Burgundy. And you know you’re going to get a full film of this from the opening credits. From the freeze frames, crossfades and graphical treatment, to the copyright notice on the title slide. As others have mentioned, there’s even a credit for “Perfume by ‘Je suis Gizella.'”
I’m not a butterfly specialist, but I suspect that lepidopterists will recognise that The Duke of Burgundy is actually a species of butterfly. Because in the central European dream-world we find ourselves, nobody seems to be interested in anything apart from butterflies and moths.
We open with Chiara d’Anna’s Evelyn, cycling through the forest to a rather grand and beautiful old house in a village deep in the mountains. She seems to be the maid for Sidse Babbett Knudsen’s Cynthia – a particularly strict mistress who inspects Evelyn’s work and is critical of it. The setting could be any time from the late sixties to the present day – there’s little technology beyond a typewriter and gramophone in evidence.
Slowly we realise that everything isn’t quite as it seems. Evelyn is playing a role, and is actually Cynthia’s lover. They live together in this big house, but enjoy roleplay and BDSM, with perhaps Cynthia being into a little more than Evelyn. She leaves her lover little cards which detail instructions. What orders she should give; how long she should be kept waiting.
At other times, they’re just a loving couple. There’s no obvious work that any of them do. Mostly they seem to just travel into town where the institute allows them to study in detail butterflies and moths. They take it in turns with other women – and only women – to give illustrated talks.
Their love for one another is real, and although we come to realise that the roleplay can get in the way – a bad back can get in the way, and a nice pair of pyjamas and a back rub is probably more comfortable than lingerie.
Their proclivities are also treated as very normal. There’s a wonderful scene where “The Carpenter” arrives to help specify a particular type of bed. Evelyn is distraught when she realises she’s not going to get said bed for her birthday because “The Carpenter’s” skills are so much in demand, there’s an eight week wait – everyone wants a bed you can lock your lover into. A possible alternative offered is of less appeal to Cynthia…
So sensuous, but also funny. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments.
And there are plenty of oddities. Why are there mannequins sitting in the audience of the butterflies lectures? Who is the woman who Cynthia and Evelyn cheerily shout hello to, but who never responds?
The cinematography from Nic Knowland is exquisite; the film has that deep, slightly over-saturated feel of films from the period. And the sets are beautifully detailed. I remember when I saw Berberian Sound Studio at the Curzon Soho, they had an exhibition of props and designs from that film. The detail as extraordinary. That’s no less true for this film – and you have to anticipate that Strickland is working on a limited budget. I noticed that the credits also listed an entomologist – I assume to help dress Cynthia’s study where dozens of butterflies lie behind glass cases.
The soundtrack from Cat’s Eyes is terrific. I instantly when and downloaded it after seeing the film. It has a soft-folk sensibility and catches the mood and feel of the film perfectly (I believe they’re on Jonny Trunk’s OST show for Resonance FM, so I’ll be checking out Mixcloud for that when it’s up).
And Strickland loves sound. Sound is really important throughout this film. The effects – and I suspect that there was a good deal of foley work to give a true representation of that heightened sound that redubbing all the sound gives you. But more than that, we get extended sequences where we hear the birds and trees that surround our characters. And the characters listen to recordings of butterflies and moths. We know that these are accurate recordings because the credits reveal – in unprecedented detail – what animals we heard, where the recording was made, the recording machine and microphones used.
In 1999 Channel 4 ran a fascinating series in the middle of the night called Eurotica that covered many of the films that are referenced here. Anyone who’s familiar with any of those films, will recognise what Strickland has done here. But he’s made something more intelligent. This isn’t just for titillation. Indeed, if that’s what you’re looking for, then you’ll be disappointed. The only people who are close to doing similar things to Strickland are Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani who have made Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, but they’re knowingly obtuse and stylised to such an extent that their films become barely watchable (they’re more something a trendy bar would have running on a screen somewhere).
I suspect – hope really – that you’ll know if you’d like this film. And if so, go and see it. I loved it.[While the film is only likely to get a limited release, it’s getting one of those interesting On Demand releases too. So you can watch it via iTunes, Sky Store (I had to search to find it there), Google Play and Curzon On Demand amongst others. And it’ll be on DVD/BluRay within a month or so.]