Friday, 17 April 2015

The new old weird: The Duke of Burgundy

Rather than watch the Leaders' Debate Minus Cameron and Clegg last night, I went to see The Duke of Burgundy.

One of the central protagonists is played by the star of Borgen, which was enough for me. Beyond that, I had no idea what to expect. By the end, I wasn't sure what I'd seen. It was like going back to the early 90s and seeing a Jarman or Greenaway film for the first time. Plot: minimal. Car chases: none. Resolution: minimal. Not even a gunfight on a train roof, for crying out loud.

The trailer makes it more action-packed and saucy than it really is. The film follows the relationship between two women, one of whom wishes to be dominated in increasingly bizarre ways (one-handed viewers may be disappointed to learn that virtually none of this is portrayed visually).

The other character, Cynthia (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen) is increasingly uncomfortable in the role, complaining that she prefers her comfortable pyjamas to the corsetry provided by her partner, which needs 'an instruction manual'.

All this is played out amidst the faded grandeur of Empire-era Hungary (interior design fans will find the film far more exciting than those looking for a bit of girl-on-girl): it's autumn, the leaves are falling on the stonework, the sun is low and intense. The protagonists are entomologists attached to an Institute, though the way lecture attendance is boosted by mannequins hints at a degree of performativity. Every single entomologist is female and the sexual tension between them crackles: the claustrophobic, out-of-time atmosphere is redolent of Alan Moore's deliberately transgressive Lost Girls. I did wonder about the politics of an all-female cast but a male author-director.

The entomology stuff provides the symbolic backbone of the film: butterflies are everywhere, used to represent the life-cycle of the relationship, of aging, of mortality, of sexual pleasure and sexual pain.

The film is deeply repetitive: the same scenes play out again and again, though our understanding of them changes each time. We don't know whether we're seeing the start, middle or end of a relationship, nor do we know whether they achieve happiness (or whether it matters). The music too is claustrophobic: bits of post-rock mixed with the faux-innocence of St. Etienne or Belle and Sebastian gone wrong - if ever a film cried out for a hauntological reading, it's The Duke of Burgundy.

Sometimes my colleagues and I contemplate starting a scheme whereby students are encouraged (compelled?) to experience cultural forms that they've never been exposed to - without assessment or context, just purely experience. This might be the first candidate. It's visually and aurally ravishing, while remaining elusive: linear and reductive meanings are refused, while multiple interpretations seem to be encouraged.

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