Review: The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

Director: Peter Strickland

*****

As children, our imaginations are fostered and fuelled by fairytales. The illusion of adulthood is that we stop pursuing such fantasies. The Duke of Burgundy proves fantasy is too important and too dangerous to be left to children. As presented here, it’s a necessary adjunct to fully-realised love, even when you already live in a fantasy world.

Peter Strickland’s previous film, Bergman-esque giallo homage Berberian Sound Studio, saw Toby Jones’ sound engineer getting drawn into a tortuous job on an Italian slasher film, and in turn suffering an identity crisis. Identities shift once more in The Duke of Burgundy. Initially, the film seems to centre on Chiara D’Anna’s timid housemaid Evelyn, who is in the stern employ of butterfly expert Cynthia (Borgen’s Prime Minister, Sidse Babett Knudsen). Evelyn arrives for duty, polishing floors and washing underwear, but when Cynthia finds fault with her efforts, punishment ensues. Out with the sweeping brushes and in with the S&M gear! Despite this sub-Tinto Brass setup, we slowly learn that the dominant and submissive roles in this relationship are prone to switching. This switching of identities plays into the film’s larger game of equating adult fantasizing with childhood play and innocence. The material is heady and stunningly erotic, but it’s all presented as genteel, even reassuring. The film opens with a portrait straight from a childhood idyll. Evelyn is seated by a rippling brook in an autumnal wood, when a butterfly lands on her hand. This harmonious image will shortly be put to bed, as this little naïf is slowly revealed to be anything but. The film’s title refers to a breed of butterfly, but it’s not just bugs that metamorphose in the world of The Duke of Burgundy.

Like the best fantasies, many of The Duke of Burgundy’s individual peculiarities are accepted as fact. The novelty of Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship comes not from any lesbian stereotyping, but from the fantastical elements both within and around the pair. These sleeping beauties live in a world inhabited solely by women. Taking the conceit of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant one step further, men are never alluded to; this world of women simply is. The couple inhabit a castle-like mansion, full of antiques and creaking floorboards. Most everyone in this world studies butterflies, with academic lectures proving the social highlight of all and sundry. These habits and rigours are never explained, and they never need to be. We’re too focused on our central couple. D’Anna’s piercing eyes and high-tuned voice convey innocence, while Knudsen’s sultry tones put her firmly in charge. It’s to their credit that they sell the plot developments, as Strickland pulls the carpet out from our expectations. It’s a bait-and-switch recalling Mulholland Drive, another masterful tale of transformative lesbianism and destructive fantasies. Strickland knows their back-and-forth is the key to The Duke of Burgundy and, with two striking performances at his film’s core, he’s able to construct any fantasy he wishes around it. They guarantee an emotional connection even when the film’s bizarre sense of humour comes to the fore. You’d be amazed how emotionally involved you become about the purchase of a human toilet.

Mercifully, we never see a human toilet onscreen, but the suggestion is enough to arouse interest. For all the kinky goings-on, not one errant nipple or pubic hair is glimpsed. The greatest fantasies come from what remains hidden, yet the film is too emotionally charged and too beautiful to be reduced to a tease. Strickland never resorts to cheap thrills; instead, he fills his womanly world with unexpected sights and sounds. The film is shot in warm textures; night is more navy than black, and every room is lit by lamplight. Like some ASMR-fuelled fever dream, the gentlest noises are accentuated, be it rippling water, creaking hinges or zipping up leather boots. A soundscape of whispers and harpsichords is all part of the reassuring fairytale, never eclipsed by bawdy leeriness and never getting in the way of the struggles of our central couple.

As time passes, Evelyn’s heightened sexual demands begin to take their toll on submissive and dominant alike. In one of the film’s most remarkable scenes, a nightmare appears to take place between Cynthia’s legs, culminating in the screen being filled by the deafening flapping of butterfly wings. The Duke of Burgundy is full of surprises, just not the type you’d expect from an S&M-driven romance. The kinkiness comes amidst a heightened sensory experience; the opening credits include a ‘Perfume by…’ credit. Everything in this film’s production, from its visuals to its elegant camerawork to its sound design, is engineered for seduction. That said, despite the leather boots and domination, it all comes back to the childish side of fantasy. Unlike so much other violently insistent erotica, The Duke of Burgundy is gentle and welcoming. It creates a spell over its audience, allowing the vapours to soak in before delivering a few sharp whip cracks. It’s seductive, sensuous and sublime; drink it in.

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Review: Inherent Vice (2014)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

****

The desolate souls of Inherent Vice, the spent wanderers and dope fiends, are Paul Thomas Anderson’s stock in trade. Whether it’s Adam Sandler looking for love or Tom Cruise looking for a father, the hunt goes ever on. A search for adjectives to describe this film continues apace, but his follow-up to The Master sees Anderson being defiantly Anderson; he knows what he’s saying, and we have to catch up. Lay back and enjoy, then let the vapours clear and think about it. That’s when you really get the hit. Buy the ticket; take the ride.

Given the breadth and depth of the themes and subjects he’s covered over the years, it’s hardly surprising that it’s taken over five decades for the work of Thomas Pynchon to make it to the big screen. It’s clear to see what it was in Pynchon’s seventh novel that appealed to Anderson enough to make it into his seventh feature. The Altman devotee would jump at the chance to make this demented cousin of The Long Goodbye. In place of Philip Marlowe, we get Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), part-detective, part-dude. He is what Hunter S. Thompson would call a ‘high-powered mutant’, one of those wonderful breeds that’s too weird to live and too rare to die. The comparisons to Raoul Duke are apt; the hash-smoked environs of Pynchon’s prose are full of gonzo doodahs in pursuit of peyote. When we first see Doc, he seems to be in an imbibed mellowness when in sashays his ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). Her perma-smiled face comes begging a favour. Her lover, billionaire Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), is being set up by his wife and her lover in a plot to get his money. It must be an act of undiminished love on Shasta’s part to hire Doc to foil the plot. In certain scenes, he appears unable to find his own feet, let alone a clue. Still, the film surrounding him isn’t all that interested in finding out what’s happened, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

For a film with such labyrinthine plotting, Inherent Vice pays it relatively little attention, letting the action unfold perpendicular to Doc’s stumblings. That’s not to say that Pynchon’s narrative doesn’t go anywhere; it all dovetails relatively neatly, but it’s not the film’s primary concern. Inherent Vice’s primary register is capturing a sense of time and place. In doing so, it forms a loose trilogy with Anderson’s previous outings to chart the evolution/bastardization of the American Dream. The century started off with Daniel Plainview’s pillaging of oil and milkshakes in There Will Be Blood, before jumping to the early 1950s to see America heal itself after the war with religion and ego in The Master. In Inherent Vice, we watch the optimism of the 1960s boil over to cover the West Coast in blunt smoke. Though Robert Elswit’s hazy cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s slyly upbeat score hint at that decade’s promise, darkness lingers nearby. The country has clearly given up on looking for answers outside its borders; despite being at its height, the Vietnam War is never mentioned. All that’s left is weed and what remains of the boom of the late ‘50s. Doc’s investigations lead him to a strip mall that remains undeveloped, save for a brothel. Sex is in ready supply, but all other trade seems to be drying up.

Inherent ViceAfter both Wolfmann and Shasta disappear, Doc gets lost in the weedy fog, coming up against neo-Nazis, a dope-running triad called the Golden Fang and a coked-up dentist (Martin Short), all the while hunting down a wayward saxophonist (Owen Wilson) who has something to do with the whole Wolfmann affair. The first viewing of Inherent Vice is best taken as something to be experienced rather than comprehended. Use subsequent viewings to plug the gaps, and admire the talent on display first and foremost. The whole cast commit to the hippy-dippy insanity. The glazed far-off look in Phoenix’s face is a source of joy, whilst an enjoyable ensemble of names big and small come and go to add flavours of all kinds. Benicio Del Toro homages Dr. Gonzo by playing Doc’s (maritime) lawyer Sauncho Smilax, whilst Josh Brolin gives typically good grunt as Bigfoot Bjornsen, the cop who simultaneously helps and hinders Docs’ enquiries. The best turn of the film is arguably Katherine Waterston as Shasta; though she’s often as high as anyone else onscreen, her smile and her delicate features offer warmth as an occasional counterbalance to the insanity being perpetrated around her.

And what insanity it is. Anderson describes the film as his version of a Cheech and Chong picture, with hints of Airplane! thrown in. The best comparison is another Chandler-inflected laugher, one with equally complex plotting and memorable characterisations. That said, no film can touch the stoned antics of The Big Lebowski, so Anderson doesn’t actively try to match its laugh count. Instead of set pieces and one-liners, Anderson luxuriates in the pure nonsense of the times. Constantly soundtracked by sky-high narration from Joanna Newsom’s Sortilège, Inherent Vice pitches Americana as farce. Our nominal leading man is often greeted with a cartoonish “What’s up, doc?”, while dope sends conversations rambling on past coherence. The film ends up dragging at points because it’s content to allow its inhabitants have their intoxicants, with most characters experiencing what Sortilège calls ‘doper’s ESP’ (read: paranoia). Their ramblings are the inherent vice of Inherent Vice. Then again, that’s Anderson’s point. The pratfalls, the ramblings and the hookah are driven by sadness at the passing of the promise of the 1960s. The plot continues on around Doc, as if to suggest the world will move on and this dude will be left behind regardless.

As a legal concept, ‘inherent vice’ refers to the flaws in goods or property that lead to natural deterioration over a period of time. Does the film itself falls victim to its own flaws? Or was that the point? Don’t overthink it. To quote one one of cinema’s great purveyors of the herb, change down; find your neutral space. All the pieces will fit together in the end.