This is a feature-length documentary due for release by Picturehouse in April this year. The film is about actual events in the horse-racing world between 2008 and 2011, hence the release close to the date for the Grand National. The presenter suggested that this would be a ‘feel-good’ release offering a tale of ‘making good’. The plot follows a small group in a Welsh mining village who raise and train and thoroughbred race horse. The form of the film involves cutting between interviews with actual participants and either actual footage or recreations that present the story of events. I could see that the film has that ‘feel good’ factor and it has a central character of a horse: surely a winner with the British public. I was interested in how the film constantly offered contrasts between the working class Welsh villagers and the world of racing, very much dominated by the aristocracy and land-owning faction of the bourgeoisie. However, there was a lack of a political edge to this. There is at one point some stills and found footage from the miners’ strike of 1984: and it is clear that the village has suffered economic deprivation since that event. But this does not really feed into the stony or characters, [Brassed Off (1996) or ….. do a better job of this aspect]: this is very much about ‘making good’ from the other side of the tracks. I also found the style of the film rather repetitious: for most of its length the film cuts between the filmed interviews and ‘found footage’, usually of relatively short length. The lack of variation in rhythm does not help developments. There is at some point also a problem with visual or aural quality, as the film uses material from a variety of formats. I was puzzled why the feature itself is presented in 2.39.1. This leads to the cropping or stretching of much of the ‘found footage’ and also often emphases the inferior quality of some of this material. There are also quite a few really conventional, if not stereotypical moments, as when we hear Tom Jones’ ‘The Green, Green Grass of Home’ over a long shot of the Welsh landscape.
The story and the interviewees are attractive and that may help the film on release. But I felt that there as an opportunity missed. This did rather look like a lot of TV documentaries rather than having a real cinematic feel. In fact, the director and writer Louise Ormond, has mainly worked on television and in documentaries.
The film is in colour and runs 85 minutes. Not to be confused with The Dark Horse (New Zealand, 2014).
As Rona said after the screening: “This will divide audiences”. I agree but it’s interesting to conjecture why. On the one hand, the film’s references are very obscure if you are a) under 45, b) not interested in European exploitation films c) unaware of what happens in D/S relationships. On the other hand, most intelligent audiences will recognise that this film is a) beautifully made and b) a humanist love story. My hat is off to all concerned from writer/director Peter Strickland to the ‘human toilet consultant’ listed in the credits and everyone else in between.
It helps if you have seen Strickland’s two previous remarkable films, Katalin Varga and Berberian Sound Studio. The former was made in Hungary – and so is this new film. The latter was an attempt to explore the giallo, the Italian exploitation genre best-known in the UK via the 1970s works of Mario Bava and Dario Argento. The Duke of Burgundy riffs instead on the 1970s sexploitation films of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. If you don’t know these filmmakers I recommend Kim Newman’s Sight and Sound review.
‘The Duke of Burgundy’ is a (rare, English) butterfly and the study of insects is the only public activity in the strange community invented by Strickland – a community existing in a 1970s ‘mittel-Europe’ and made up solely of adult women. In this sense the relationships are not ‘lesbian’ as defined in majority heterosexual communities since all relationships are between women. The relationship at the centre of the narrative is between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). Fifty Shades of Grey has recently attracted huge audiences. I haven’t seen it, but from what I read in reviews, it doesn’t understand domination/submission in sexual relationships. The Duke of Burgundy gets it right. Evelyn the submissive is the real controller in this loving relationship and Cynthia tries to do what she asks until the ‘human condition’ becomes apparent and Cynthia develops a bad back. La bella Sidse proves to be a real trouper as Cynthia, wearing fetish gear that seems ugly to me but which supposedly does something for Evelyn. She has to appear as both the authority figure ‘dominant’ and the frump in comfy pyjamas and she does it movingly. Unfortunately, her English, though beautifully enunciated, occasionally has the wrong pitch or intonation. Where that worked for the Prime Minister of Denmark in Borgen, speaking English as part of international diplomacy, here only the slightest nuance is noticeable in the delicate soundscape. Perhaps it’s just me and I’m being hyper-critical?
In the UK the film has been given an 18 certificate and the BBFC ‘advice’ shown before the screening explains that this because of its ‘sexual fetish theme’. I can only assume that there is some kind of ‘health and safety’ warning implied here, perhaps concerning bondage. There is no explicit sexual activity on screen and ‘no nudity’. Despite what some reviewers imply, this is not an S&M relationship and the sexual ‘play’ is mostly off-screen. Does this mean the film isn’t erotic? Not really, much of the pleasure/arousal associated with D/S comes from the dialogue between the partners and the acting out of the assigned roles. I certainly found some scenes erotic. But the film is also very funny at times and raucous laughter emanated from the back of the cinema when some members of the audience clearly recognised the scenarios. It’s the humour that makes the film for me – or rather the delicate balance that Strickland and his collaborators achieve between eroticism, moments of humour, social observation and the emotional intensity of a genuine loving relationship.
It’s important to recognise the collaborators. Nic Knowland the cinematographer has vast experience, much of it in television and since he was working in the 1970s he certainly knows how to recreate the look. Several of the creative team have worked with Strickland before on Berberian Sound Studio and on international film and TV productions using Hungarian facilities. The music by Cat’s Eyes is excellent and evokes atmosphere well. Listen to extracts here. Overall, the look and ‘feel’ of the film reminded me of Nic Roeg’s work with a film like Don’t Look Now from 1973.
Peter Strickland’s films aren’t for everyone, but he is a unique talent to be nurtured and appreciated. Here’s a clip from The Duke of Burgundy:
These films are screening at the Hyde Park Picture House in a special event this coming Sunday (March 15th 2015) From Drifters to Night Mail: The British Documentary Movement. The screening will offer 35mm prints from the bfi. The films are all seminal contributions to the British Documentary Movement and its work for, first the Empire Marketing Board, and then for the GPO Film Unit.
Drifters 1929, black and white, silent – originally 56 minutes.
This study of herring fisherman in the North Sea was directed, edited and partly photographed by John Grierson, the filmmaker who led the documentary movement until he moved to the National Film Board of Canada. The main cinematography was by Basil Emmott, who had already contributed some fine location work to the 1927 drama Hindle Wakes. The film commences in a fishing village, follows a fishing vessel out to sea, observes its catches, and then follows it back to harbour where the caught fish enter the national and international markets. Much of the film relies on location shooting, on land and at sea in the fishing vessel. There are also insert shots filmed at a Marine Biological Research Station. The film demonstrates the influence on Grierson and his colleagues of two of the outstanding innovators of the 1920s. One was Robert Flaherty, whose new form of ‘documentary’ (Nanook of the North, 1922) influenced the treatment and the narrative of Drifters. The other influence is Soviet montage and in particular Sergei Eisenstein. The latter’s Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin. 1925), along with Drifters was, part of a triple bill at the London Film Society in 1929, together with an early work by Walt Disney.
Grierson’s use of montage is more conventional than that of Eisenstein and his film has a linear narrative. But it also offers symbolism and abstract motifs for the viewer.
The film demonstrates not only Grierson’s cinematic talents but also his shrewd manoeuvres within state institutions. The film’s topic played to the interest of a key civil servant in the Treasury regarded as an expert of the British Herring Industry.
Housing Problems 1936, black and white, sound film, 16 minutes.
This study in social reportage was sponsored by the gas industry. However, apart from a final comment, this is not a paean to a capitalist corporation but a hard-headed and powerful piece of social observation and implicit criticism. Directed by Edward Anstey and Arthur Elton the film presented scenes of squalor in slum housing and, fairly uniquely for this period, working class people were seen describing their own world and situation. Other work by the documentary movement did offer such voices, but the situation and voices in this film are the most compelling. The film ventures into the ‘other world’ of ordinary lives paralleled in the work of Mass Observation and the writings of George Orwell. There is a positive message at the end, featuring in part the Leeds Quarry Hill Development of the time: a note of posthumous irony. If John Grierson returned today he would be hard put to produce a film on herring fishing: but Anstey and Elton would have no difficulty in presenting again a world of slum housing and exploitation.
Night Mail, 1936, black and white, sound film, 24 minutes.
This was the most popular of the 1930 British documentary films: it actually enjoyed screenings in commercial cinemas. The directors, Harry Watt and Basil Wright, followed the night mail train from London to Glasgow, ‘carrying letters’ for all and sundry. The film used extensive location work with some striking cinematography. I especially treasure a travelling shot as a Border collie vainly chases after the speeding train. Some of the interiors were filmed in a studio setting, carefully simulating the rocking motion of the train. The first 20 minutes of the film are in fairly conventional documentary style, with an authoritative voice-over. The final four minutes follow a different form, with poetry (W. H. Auden) and music (Benjamin Britton). The credits list Alberto Cavalcanti as sound director. Cavalcanti had worked in the European avant-garde cinema. One version I heard suggested that in fact two films were in preparation by the Unit. And they were finally amalgamated to make this complete film, [there are two earlier sequences that bear the inprint of Cavalcanti and his team]. This certainly makes sense of the final form of the film. Moreover, whilst the last four minutes do have the touch that one finds in Cavalcanti’s work the bulk of the film has the established approach that one can find in other films by Watt and Wright. If this was the case, it was a happy marriage: though as with Drifters we no longer have a rail system to inspire this sort of filmmaking.
There is a posting on Drifters at
Alex Garland is a British writer with a keen interest in SF which he has turned into interesting scripts for a number of films. Now he has become a writer-director and we can consider whether the earlier films owe more to directors like Danny Boyle (e.g. in 28 Days Later) or the original story (Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigiro) rather than Garland’s own contributions. My initial thought about Ex Machina is that the direction fits the script but that the most immediately impressive features are the performances, the location, set design and cinematography and the sound design and music score (all of which are, of course, part of the collective work which the director co-ordinates). On reflection, however, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the way in which Garland creates a discourse about Artificial Intelligence, partly through dialogue and the interaction of characters and partly through narrative development. In doing so he draws on the whole history of SF in literature and film. I think there is relatively little ‘new’ in the presentation of AI here, apart from the idea that the ‘scientist as God’ character, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), has drawn on his experience as the creator of an internet search engine as the means of acquiring the data which has informed his programming of androids. But genre films don’t have to be original to work well and in several ways this is an exemplar SF narrative. I can see, however, that it might be seen as more like a filmic version of a classic SF short story or an episode of The Outer Limits. It is relatively modest in its reach, partly perhaps because with only $13 million and a need for extensive effects there are serious restraints on production. Still, better a modest success than a $100 million Hollywood mess.
The narrative set-up is straightforward. Caleb, a young coder working for the ‘Blue Book’ (?) internet search company, is flown to the remote house/research laboratory owned by Nathan, the firm’s founder. Here he learns that he has seven days to apply the Turing Test to the product of Nathan’s research, an android robot named Ava. This is the first conundrum which seems to have tripped up some reviewers. In the original test the idea was that the tester would not be able to see the computer but would be able to discern from its behaviour in answering questions (or playing chess) that it was human or a machine. The AI would ‘pass’ the test if it was impossible to tell the difference. But Nathan presents Caleb with the android itself. His task is to engage with the android and try to devise his own test to see if he recognises human rather than ‘artificial’ behaviour. This in itself raises an interesting set of philosophical questions – the test becomes about Caleb’s behaviour as much as it is about Ava’s.
Ava is clearly ‘artificial’ – we can see the elements of the machine. The next question is whether ‘she’ is ‘female’, or perhaps, is it possible for Caleb to conduct the test when the android has a woman’s shape and a face as beautiful as that of Alicia Vikander? In the blog by MaryAnn Johanson there is a sustained critique of the film, accusing it of being a male director’s version of a feminist film when in reality it is the opposite. There are many comments on Johanson’s blog in both support and opposition and it is an interesting debate. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll not discuss all the points but certainly we can imagine that the test Caleb devises is partly, consciously or unconsciously, influenced by Ava’s seductive charm. On the other hand, it is quite a leap to suggest that Ava is, or that she represents, a ‘woman’. The android has no sex even if ‘her’ actions are ‘gendered’ in social terms by Caleb and Nathan – as well as by us the audience. I think several viewings are going to be needed before I would be confident about embarking on a debate about the film’s representations of gender. Ava is an interesting name for the android. In one sense Ava ‘sounds like’ ‘Eva’, the first woman. It’s also the first name of the film star who in her time was argued to be the most beautiful, Ava Gardner and it is close to ‘Ada’ which might be a reference to Ada Lovelace, daughter of Byron and claimed by some as the first computer programmer.
A few days ago I was complaining about the script for Albatross and focusing on poor script development as a weakness in British cinema. I don’t think you could accuse Garland of producing a sloppy script. I read somewhere that he was attempting to achieve something like the closed drama of Sleuth, the 1970 play by Anthony Shaffer, first adapted as a film in 1972 with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. It’s possible to see elements of a theatre text in the lines of dialogue between Caleb and Nathan, enhanced by the tension between the two as Nathan sets out to ‘play’ the younger man like a fish lured to the fly. My only problem with this is that I’m not yet convinced by Nathan’s character – or rather his behaviour. I don’t think that this is the fault of Oscar Isaac as Nathan, but Nathan seems rather boorish and careless for a man who has designed an android and who lives in such a stylish house.
I think I’m convincing myself that this would be a good study text for students and I’m looking forward to mapping the references and influences. It seems fairly clear that the gender issues are central in some way and also all those Phil K. Dick obsessions with the interface between human and artificial intelligence. Ex Machina could be a Dickian short story. But the Hollywood Reporter gets it wrong in its review. At the beginning of Blade Runner, the ‘replicants’ (the film’s term for androids) are not being given a Turing Test – the society already knows that replicants can pass for human. Instead they are being given an ‘empathy test’ as the only way to identify them. Dick referred to androids and to simulacra. Ava is presented as an android but the technology used could create ‘sims’, indistinguishable visually from humans. I’m not going to spoil the narrative but the Dick story that came to mind when I watched Ex Machina was ‘Second Variety’ (1953) – well worth reading and thinking about in relation to Garland’s story. The other major work that occurred to me was Tarkovsky’s Solaris but I’m not sure what triggered this memory (possibly it was the memory of Natalya Bondarchuk as the woman on the space station).
Ex Machina is an interesting and engaging SF film and following Under the Skin, presents a strong case for the health of British SF cinema. (IMDB bafflingly calls this an American film but as far as I can see it is entirely British – unless Universal invested in the film. Certainly it was shot in UK studios (and on location in Norway).
This is quite a good trailer (and doesn’t give away too much):