Rating:Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio unfolded almost solely within the confines of a dark, stifling recording studio, the alienating properties of this enclosed space accentuating the spiritual decay experienced by its unraveling protagonist. This venue also provided a strictly defined zone for the film to deal with its own obvious over-fondness for Italian Giallo and ‘70s horror tropes: stiff sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is himself working on one such movie, and while footage from that project is heard but never actually seen, its narrative and genre conventions pool steadily outward. As the plot progresses, Gilderoy’s efforts at self-preservation form a meta-textual echo-chamber with those of the film itself, which strives valiantly to break new ground while working in a relentlessly familiar period-horror mold. This approach felt both novel and ingenious, veering dangerously close to mimetic fetishism but deftly sidestepping its snares. Strickland builds on it further in The Duke of Burgundy, a psychosexual drama founded on an elegant series of repetitions, in which the tension between a heavily referential stylistic palette and two characters battling the contempt bred by familiarity provides the essential creative engine.
As much as the setting of Berberian was dreary, disturbing and restrictive, The Duke of Burgundy seems airy and open, set in a spacious manor house located on several acres of stunning autumnal woodland. The locations of the two films are more similar than they initially seem, however, and the isolated forest world here is gradually revealed as an amorphous daydream zone, a tweaked reality whose fantastic properties are heightened by the film’s willingness to swing between dreams and actual events. It’s a place where men don’t seem to exist, and an open culture of kinky lesbianism appears to have replaced them, where amateur lepidopterists can afford sumptuously appointed abodes and endless elaborate outfit changes. All this gaudy visual frippery establishes a firm aesthetic focus (the opening scroll offers specific credits for perfume and lingerie), but aesthetics ultimately prove only an entry point for the movie’s exploration of the inner workings of a relationship, the demarcated fantasy space allowing for a pensive reflection on how surfaces both reflect and influence what’s going on underneath.
It’s hard to discuss much of the film’s plot without disrupting its slow, sumptuous revelation of nested surprises, but for the most part The Duke of Burgundy deals with the shaky-but-committed relationship of long-time lovers Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) and Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), whose isolation in their remote country manse is broken up by a few significant journeys outside. Their partnership is introduced within the parameters of boilerplate masochistic fantasy – a maid subjected to sadistic, erotic cruelty by her domineering master – but this set-up is merely the first of many stylistic reference points waiting to be expanded upon. With each successive narrative shift comes changes in the apparent balance of power, the couple’s role-play scenarios acting as both mirror and inversion of their real-life dynamics. These fantasies repeat in slightly different permutations, and with each recurrence small alterations occur, in the placement of bodies and objects and the inflection of rehearsed lines, the scenario transforming as the mechanics undergirding them transform.
The resultant portrait of love and exhaustion is ultimately just as oppressive as that of Berberian Sound Studio’s sultry personal nightmare, with the circumscribed rooms of the mansion existing as both primary setting and their own enclosed world, all external events existing only to reflect back on the turmoil inside. Yet The Duke of Burgundy, unlike its predecessor, isn’t a tale of internal corrosion or emotional rot. The film’s best quality may be that, despite the visual nods toward imprisonment and the often sinister tone attached to its sexual explorations, there’s never any suggestion of judgment. Impressively open-minded, the film negotiates the outer limits of human sexuality, from bondage and fetish play to forced imprisonment – not to mention a running subplot about human toilets – while maintaining an eye toward these behaviors as natural outgrowths of a loving, if flawed, relationship. In cataloguing the minute imbalances and differences that afflict any partnership, the potential for soul-sapping routine in even the strangest of circumstances, it links its incessant borrowing from old genre material to the framework of familiarity that both sustains and endangers such a partnership. Maintaining an insistent air of humanism beneath its cold, ornate surfaces, the film’s discovery of emotion under even the most seemingly perverse of practices, is at the core of both its story and its striking subversion of the stylistic markers from which it so brazenly borrows.