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LFF 2014: ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ forges a delicious frisson of sound and cinematic sentiment

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The Duke Of Burgundy
Written and directed by Peter Strickland
UK, 2014

A couple of years ago, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio seemed to materialise from the ether and spear the hearts of giallo and cult murder movie fans everywhere with its exquisitely executed homage to the murdering grounds of Argento, Bava and Martino, so his long-anticipated follow-up as been eagerly received throughout the international festival circuit. This time Strickland has mounted a similar etymology of cult movie history in the form of 1970’s Eurotrash exploitation pictures, soft-core seductions from the likes of Jess Franco or Umberto Lenzi, with a reincarnation complete with creeping zooms, trance-like montages, and a rather flippant approach to narrative coherence, sacrificed on the altar of pure cinematic sensation.

In a nameless, unspecified European locale  — we could be on the outskirts of Antwerp or Amsterdam, Milan or Madrid – -a pastoral moss-choked mansion house is visited by young maid Evelyn (a doe-eyed Chiara D’Anna), whom obediently follows the demeaning instructions of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the domineering and severely set mistress of the house. Their sexual congress is swiftly established as secretly acquiescent from both sides of the equation, with a slow reveal of each partner’s instructions and particularly passionate peccadilloes. Occasionally the couple venture beyond the hermetic harem of their home and relationship; fascinated with a shared interest in entomology, they attend seminars at the local university on the life cycle and ontogeny of butterflies and moths. The repetitive relationship begins to disintegrate when Cynthia begins to falter physically, driving a slowly widening wedge between the duo’s firm fondling.

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Like Berberian Sound Studio, the film’s narrative and plot-mandated weaknesses are eclipsed by the wonderfully evocative aura that Strickland musters through music, image, and mood-mustering montage, with long stretches of the film being less concerned with examining the psychological tryst at the heart of the affair than forging a delicious frisson of sound and cinematic sentiment. It’s a curious exercise in dream film that pierces the heart rather than the head, with a fine line in humour and manipulation of self-aware schlock. Despite the potentially lurid setting, The Duke Of Burgundy is rather chaste in actual presentations of nudity or sex regarding what the narrative would and could suggest, with assured cult credentials branded from any film which features credits specifically listing ‘dress and lingerie by Andrea Flesch’ and ‘perfume by Je Suis Gizella’. The film doesn’t particularly linger and dissipates away like the dying embers of an August dusk, but as an exercise in atmosphere Strickland has again found his melodic métier, prompting one question – what movie will next be molested?

– John McEntee

Visit the official website of the BFI London Film Festival.


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