The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)
Towards the start of the opening credits of The Duke of Burgundy, I spotted the name of executive producer Ben Wheatley. He directed the genre bending Kill List (2011), the rather baffling A Field in England (2013), a couple of episodes of NuWho and he’s working on High-Rise. I couldn’t help but see that there was an uncanny film at work — a hidden film. On the one hand, there’s the Peter Greenaway version, which would need a Michael Nyman score, more camera tracking and an organisational system (by genus of butterfly?). On the other hand there’s the horror film, possibly sf. Clearly the credits sequence is meant to invoke 1970s low budget movies, a sexploitation or two, maybe even a hint at Hammer. In a recurring scenario — this film is so about its repetition — the camera pans along a crowd watching a talk on butterflies and moths and, among all the woman, there are a couple of shop dummies. Autons? Cheaper than extras? A nod toward the artificiality of it all? Or do we have a body snatchers scenario and they’re all insects? As Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) locates and opens a body-sized chest in the house, I wondered what horror we were to find in it. Later, briefly, there was an answer (as well as a longer answer).
So Evelyn (there’s an echo of Angela Carter there) arrives at a house, knocks and is admitted, being told off by Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) for being late and for sitting down without invitation (I confess my first thought was she had not been given permission — a Pavlovian training from my own childhood). Evelyn is set to work, cleaning the study — a space full of dead butterflies and larvae — and doing the laundry. When, as is inevitable, she fails to please her mistress, she is punished, behind a closed bathroom door, and possibly by a method that the British government recently criminalised on streaming video. If the acting seems a little off — well, think of the acting and dubbing in Dario Argento films if you haven’t (as I haven’t) seen Jess Franco films, and the fact that it is All More Complicated than you think it is.
It is obviously less explicit than that other film, Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), for the most part at least, and we would do well to avoid falling into an old value judgement about pornography and erotica. Here’s Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian:
Peter Strickland’s new film, The Duke of Burgundy, is different: it is a labour of love, whereas Fifty Shades of Grey was a labour of money.
Whilst clearly a budget of some significance was thrown at the other film, it has made pots of money and the original texts were bestselling adaptations of bestselling novels, this rather begs a question about Sam Taylor-Johnson’s artistic intentions in making the film alongside all the other crew members and the cast. Strickland, presumably, didn’t get a fee? Srsly? Whilst clearly I wasn’t a fan of that better known film, it is very easy to be snide about materials that a large female audience has enjoyed.
Obviously there are ambiguities to navigate. I’m inclining to the sense that it’s an exaggeration of the kind of materialistic relationship that many straight women enter into in capitalist society and that it isn’t necessarily endorsing it. This is not quite the same as suggesting that it’s a dramatization of the kind of abusive relationship that too many women (read: any non-consenting abusive relationship) are in or that women have the freedom to choose their sexual activities even if these are masochistic in nature (and, indeed, that’s so none of my business). Whilst clearly we could say the words Internalised Misogyny, we have a novel by a female ur-writer transformed by a female novelist adapted by a female screen writer filmed by a female director. Compare, say, Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976), where a male novelist is adapted by a male screenwriter is filmed by a male director. It’s not my place to label, but which one seems more likely to be feminist? One of them is a female vision of (some) female fantasies and the other is a male vision of (some) female fantasies. The fact that both characters are female makes a difference.
So, whilst it has to be noted that the entire cast of The Duke of Burgundy appears to be female, Peter Strickland, director and screenwriter, is a bloke. The BDSM scenario may be a representation of female empowerment, but it’s a male vision. Clearly the film passes the Bechdel Test, but that’s no guarantee it’s feminist. (I note, again, I have no authority to issue such a label.) At points I found myself pondering whether entomology is part of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) and the problem of a narrative in which the abuser has apparently been “seduced” by the victim. (“She made me do it.”)
I was particularly disturbed by the sequence when the camera zooms in on the darkened crotch of Cynthia and goes on an extended fantasy riff — in both the sexual and non-realist sense — before pulling back again. Is this, I wondered, a misogynist fear of what all those women get up to when men aren’t around? Perhaps not even women, but Insect Things? Where are all the men? Victims of preying mantises?
But the actors do what they do well, and it is beautifully shot and designed the hell out of — there’s a perfume credit, a long list of butterflies and very detailed annotations of the field recordings used in the film. It deserves to do well so that BFI and Film Four investment can be repaid. To say this is a better film than Fifty Shades, however, is probably not a useful judgement; I’m not even sure that I’d be more likely to rewatch it. I do want to seek out Katalin Varga (2006) and Berberian Sound Studio (2012) though.