Sex, bondage, and butterflies: two women explore the extremes of carnal desire in this kinky, deliciously twisted tale of erotic obsession. In a crumbling European estate, butterfly researcher Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her lover Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) repeatedly enact a sadomasochistic role-playing game with Cynthia as the stern mistress and Evelyn her subservient slave. But as the lines between fantasy and reality begin to blur and Cynthia grows increasingly uneasy with Evelyn's insatiable appetite for punishment, their relationship is pushed to the limit. (From Shout Factory’s official synopsis)
Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012, his second feature following Katalin Varga, 2009) was released at the top of a prolific era for movies that harkened back to Italy’s giallo period, followed by Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani’s Amer (2009) and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013), and Adam Brooks & Matthew Kennedy’s genre spoof, The Editor (2014), among others. Strickland’s version of of giallo homage was less literal and more postmodern than his contemporaries, opting to hide many of his Argento and Bava-esque motifs out of frame, in the form of a movie-within-a-movie, teasing his audience with the sounds of the films that inspired him. Berberian Sound Studio’s spiritual follow-up, The Duke of Burgundy, opts to pay homage to the esoteric erotic cinema of French and Spanish filmmakers, like Jesus “Jess” Franco and Jean Rollin, instead of the psychedelic Italian thrillers. That said, there are still some possible ties to the gialli (the lepidopterology angle may be invoking the doomed entomologist of Bava’s Bay of Blood [Italian: Ecologia del delitto, 1971]).
Strickland is certainly clear in his referential goals with the very specific ‘70s style opening credits, the dreamy tone, the thematically dramatic use of S&M, and the casting of Monica Swinn – who had appeared in Franco’s Female Vampire (1975) and Rollin’s The Demoniacs (1974), ironically cast as a conservative, nosy neighbor – but The Duke of Burgundy’s referential qualities are the style this time, rather than the substance. They aren’t hidden off camera or obscured by cryptic meaning, and Strickland isn’t simply stirring a potpourri of genre tropes that only hardcore fans can appreciate – he’s creating an extension of their functions and ensuring his film appeals to a broader arthouse audience. Even though the themes are obsessively niche (for further proof note that Strickland acknowledges each and every one of the insect species during the final credits, as if they were actors), The Duke of Burgundy is really about the relatable portrayal of damaged people as they negotiate a complex relationship.
Like its predecessor, Duke of Burgundy is a sensory feast that touches deep, visceral places with extraordinary restraint. Franco and Rollin were certainly capable of self-control when it came to erotic and violent content, but their audiences and distributors expected a degree of indecency. Strickland’s indie credibility allows him cinematographer Nic Knowland to generate outrageously sensual images without the vulgarity required from the movies that inspired them. Not that there’s anything wrong with vulgarity – Franco, Rollin, Tinto Brass, Walerian Borowczyk, and others were all capable of creating truly beautiful obscenity – but it takes a very special filmmaker to ensure that close-up shots of clean panties soaking in white bubbles are as erotic as scenes of actual lesbian sex. In Strickland’s obsessively detailed world, even the precise and ultimately stale dissertations about the intricate differences between species of butterflies take on a seductive quality. It’s also crucial to note how well Strickland conveys tenderness between Cynthia and Evelyn, which makes their strife all the more heartbreaking. Despite all of its goosebump-inducing, mind-blowing imagery, Strickland’s film is a sympathetic portrait of a rather typical romantic disintegration (a relationship where polishing another woman’s boots is as big of a betrayal as a sexual affair). It’s difficult to recommend the film using any kind of mainstream movie parlance, but, ultimately, The Duke of Burgundy is a wonderfully unique and effective rom-com.
The Duke of Burgundy was shot using Arri Alexa digital HD cameras and is presented in 1080p, 2.35:1 video on this Blu-ray release. Strickland and Knowland’s smooth and creamy visuals look fantastic. Details are tightly rendered, edges are rarely over-sharpened edges, and there are very few step effects (posterization/banding/whatever) in the subtle gradations. Black levels are rich and bottomless, but not at the risk of the more delicate highlights (for example, the knit texture of black costumes is still evident). That said, the darkest moments don’t completely escape low-level digital noise and minor blocking. The palette is pretty strict and divided between autumnal, desaturated daylight scenes and nighttime/dark interiors that contrast limited cool and warm hues. The consistent colours tend to fall under the orange, teal, or red categories, alongside some exterior greens and blues. This all sounds like pretty standard-issue Hollywood digital cinematography, but there’s a cleaner natural quality to the ‘structure’ that gives the impression of 35mm. Overall, I can’t imagine a more effective HD transfer for such a subtly beautiful film.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack is not as lively and abstract as Berberian Sound Studio, which is a movie about sound design. Strickland values complete silence and many scenes include little to no environmental ambience. Outdoor sequences feature chirping birds and winds, but the only standout noises (besides music) are the intense buzz/hum of synthesized insect calls and a scene towards the end of the film where the flapping wings of butterflies swirl around the room like static. Despite these purposefully quiet qualities, I suspect that the track has been a bit compressed, because I was forced to turn the volume up beyond my usual levels just to hear what characters were saying. The dreamy, sometimes catchy soundtrack is supplied by Cat’s Eyes, a pop duo consisting of The Horrors’ Faris Badwan and soprano/instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira.
Commentary with director Peter Strickland – I admit I was weary of watching this particular film with an audio commentary, because so much of its value is in its ambiguity and I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear what Strickland definitively meant to convey. Fortunately, the good-natured Strickland (who is recording from his own apartment) is full of information that doesn’t ‘ruin’ the intended effect. I actually completed the review before I watched it and was happy to learn what I got wrong. There’s quite a bit of technical jargon and Strickland notes the various thematic/visual inspirations, many of which are delightfully unexpected.
Interview with Strickland (11:40, HD) – The director rambles about his inspirations, intentions, casting, and more, but seems put-off by the interview all-around.
Deleted and extended scenes (44:30, HD) – These include special effects tests and additional B-roll type footage, much of it set to music from Cat’s Eyes. Each scene opens with an extensive text essay from the director.
Cat's Eyes promo (5:00, HD) – An eerie little advertisement for the musical group.
Conduct Phase short film (8:10, HD) – An experimental short featuring footage of a dog shot on 8mm at different speeds. It is set to music by Roj.
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