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:
Christmas Day is a problem in our household. Most cinemas are closed and the TV offer is unwatchable so it has to be a DVD. This time Ray brought over his projector and because of forthcoming rail journeys in Italy I suggested Tickets – a ‘portmanteau’ film in which three directors tell three separate stories involving passengers travelling between Innsbruck and Rome. Although all three stories are distinct there is an overlap with a group of characters appearing in more than one story.
The story began as a suggestion by Abbas Kiarostami in a discussion with producer Carlo Cresto-Dina and editor/actor Babak Karimi. The original idea was for three linked documentaries. The other two directors who were invited on board were Ermanno Olmi and Ken Loach. In the ‘making of’ documentary included on the Artificial Eye DVD we see the three directors with their interpreters eventually deciding to make a trio of linked fictional stories. This discussion is interesting because it is Loach who effectively sets up the format when he says that he can’t work on Olmi’s suggestion of ‘three colours’ as a starting point because it is too abstract. Instead he suggests a story idea that involves migrants or simply travellers who are involved in stories that cross national and cultural boundaries. Loach is closest to the original ideas of neo-realism – stories taken from the world, not imposed upon it. Also interesting is that Loach is accompanied by his three close collaborators, Rebecca O’Brien (who attends the initial conversation), screenwriter Paul Laverty and cinematographer Chris Menges. The other two directors both have collaborators as well but they didn’t seem to have the same input from the evidence in the documentary.
The journey begins with Ermanno Olmi’s story in Innsbruck where an Italian scientist has been attending a meeting at a pharmaceutical company. Because of a security alert he is unable to return by plane and has to take a train. The train is booked by a PR person (played by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). The elderly professor is anxious to return to Milan in time for his grandson’s birthday. He is very taken by the beautiful and efficient Ms Tedeschi and he fantasises about her via a memory from his childhood about a girl whose piano-playing he heard through a window. These thoughts run through his head as he taps away on his computer in a crowded train compartment. Olmi carefully contextualises the professor’s story by reference to the people around him in the carriage. It’s interesting that Olmi’s story benefits from the ‘open’ architecture of the dining car: the seat backs are relatively low (i.e. not the ‘airline’ style) and therefore the camera can frame many passengers together, allowing a kind of commentary on their actions. I assume that this is a deliberate choice of rolling stock as Olmi tends to stage scenes in depth. Olmi also shoots on a stationary carriage with back projection through the carriage windows. At the end of the episode the professor makes a humanitarian gesture to a family forced to sit on their luggage in the vestibule at the end of their carriage – and everyone in the dining car follows the action.
This same family is seen to change trains at Verona and Abbas Kiarostami’s story is set on the second train travelling to Rome. In this story we meet a bossy and aggressive middle-aged woman. She has several heavy bags and is accompanied by a young man who at first seems like her grandson. She sits down in First Class on reserved seats and is then involved in two unnecessary arguments caused by her aggression. She treats the young man badly and he goes out into the corridor and talks to a teenage girl who says she knows him and refers to a time several years ago when they both lived in the same small town of Bracciano in Lazio region, north of Rome. This is the most inconsequential story in terms of narrative development, but it offers a first glimpse of the three young Celtic FC supporters who feature in the final story.
Loach’s story (from Paul Laverty’s script) sees the three young Glaswegians meeting the young boy from the migrant family. They treat him well but a little later one of the three discovers that his train ticket has gone missing. The ticket inspector (who first appeared in the Kiarostami story) says he must buy a ticket and pay a fine. The three lads don’t have any spare money and they conclude that the boy they befriended may have taken the train ticket when they showed him their tickets for the football game between Celtic and Roma. What happens next becomes the sequence which delivers the resolution of the overall narrative.
I enjoyed all three stories but they are each different in approach. Olmi’s story is the most ‘theatrical’ and the most complex in narrative terms. It includes scenes set ‘outside’ the world of the train. It does however also include some forms of social commentary. Kiarostami’s story is the most tightly-focused but the most difficult to ‘read’. He offers us an example of ‘bad behaviour’ by the older woman with ‘mitigating circumstances’ – behaviour that is tolerated and treated with some humanity by the ticket inspector, possibly because that is the easiest way for him to handle it. The conversation between the young man and the teenage girl is more puzzling in terms of its meanings, although it may be there to show that the young man once caused distress to someone else without intending to. The young man is actually carrying out ‘community service’ – I’m not sure if this is because he has been convicted of a criminal offence or if this is a different kind of national ‘requirement’. It occurs to me now that all three stories are concerned with some kind ‘service’ or action of generosity. Kiarostami’s story is simply the most complex expression of what ‘service’ means.
The Laverty/Loach story is much more obvious in its portrayal of the dilemma of charity/generosity. It is also the most clearly associated with social difference/inequality. The Glasgow lads are working-class Scots (played by three young actors who all got their first roles in Loach’s Sweet Sixteen (2005). They want to be generous but they don’t want to be conned. The ticket inspector is this time more officious (he has already had a run in with them because of their boisterous behaviour) and his humanity has been abandoned – forcing the lads into desperate action.
Deceptively slight, the three stories do make a coherent whole and they do tell us something about human relationships and our capacity for behaving well. I saw the film when it was first released but I got much more from it the second time and I feel encouraged to watch it again. The making of documentary suggests that the overall narrative sees the train as the locus for meetings between different groups of people and the rail tickets are symbolic of the ‘exchange’ of services. In the first story the professor receives his ticket graciously from the PR woman who has booked it for him and who gives him two dining car tickets to make sure he isn’t interrupted. He ‘repays’ the generosity by his gesture to the migrant family. In the second story the woman abuses the contract represented by the ticket and she eventually pays a price. In the third story working-class solidarity wins out over officialdom.
Official UK trailer:
More from Short City at the Leeds International Film Festival. This selection featured another six films from in and near Europe. The length, style and content all varied considerably, though they all offered a dramatic situation.
Last Base (Norway 2014 – 15 minutes). The film featured ‘base-jumping’, jumping off high buildings and places, with some sort of wings to enable gliding. The film opened with an unsuccessful base-jump – wack. The main narrative featured Joachim and Ǿywind climbing Mount Katthammeren to spread the ashes of the departed Roger and honour him one last time. The whole expedition seemed extremely hazardous – they crossed a steep snow slope on foot, a place where I would definitely have used an ice axe. At the summit we watch as the two friends weigh the options to honour Roger’s memory. Well photographed, the landscape is impressive. The friends differencing responses are well explored, and there are two exhilarating moments.
Kapi (Turkey, 2014 – three minutes). This is set on an underground station as characters, partly defined by ethnicity, board and exit a train. The film has a strong sense of atmosphere and is clearly allegorical. I thought maybe it was too compressed but a friend judged it finely done.
Birthday Present (Israel, Austria, 2014 – 23 minutes). Set in Jerusalem the film follows an evening with an Israeli student and a visiting Austrian tourist. It is the eve of his birthday, she leaves next day. They make love, but also wander the city. Their excursion is partly fuelled by his wish/fear that she take a ‘morning after pill’. The character and sense of place is well done. There is a delightful sequence in a late-night pharmacy when the girl converses with the female assistant in French, whilst he stands by uncomprehending. The conversation ends with a smile between the two women, the best moment in very well made film.
Lothar (Switzerland, 2013 – 13 minutes). This was my favourite in a strong programme. The film has a very effective title sequence – Lothar’s birth. A cut brings us to the present where Lothar has locked himself away in a room that resembles a set from Brazil – the parallel is deliberate, this is dystopian fiction. The main prop is a stylish toaster – though the room is filled with suggestive stacks of everyday necessities. Later we see Lothar leave his room for the outside world. This is an apocalyptic tale, but vey witty rather than downbeat and grim.
Bye Bye Melancholy (Bye Bye Mělancolie, France, 2014 – 22 minutes). Set on a Bastille Day in a fairly remote Service Station, we meet Morad. First we see him converse with an ex-girlfriend and then later at night he meets Emma, who drives an ambulance. The film is very much about relationships, loss and recovery. It gave me particular pleasure because it was the first short film to feature and effective canine part: and unlike some films the dog is not forgotten at the end.
The Dancing (Belgium, 2014 – 16 minutes). This is a well staged film, with effective use of music and absence of dialogue. It clearly relates to a classic text like The Bacchae, However, it did not really engage me: I think it was too drawn out; it needed a much quicker pace.
This was a very good programme of films overall. They all enjoyed high production values and generally offered well structured narratives. And they mainly offered the virtues of short filmmaking, inverted, subverted or character led dramas.
This is a montage film by Peter Von Bagh screened at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato. The Catalogue notes by Olaf Műller state the subject:
“Socialism, the 20th century’s greatest dream and source of some of its darkest nightmares.”
In fact the film takes up back to deep into the C19th, to the Paris barricades and the drafting by then two little-known activists and theorists of The Communist Manifesto (1848). The film emphasises the internationalism of that founding document right at the start – The Paris Commune in The New Babylon (Novyi Vavilon, 1929): Vietnam in Hanoi 13 Martes (Hanoi Tuesday 13th, 1966) and Chile 1973 in The Battle of Chile (La Batalla de Chile, 1977) Later it takes in the Industrial Workers of the World [The Wobblies], The Soviet Revolution, 1917; the failed revolution in Germany, 1919; and the capitalist counter-attack and the problematic decade of the 1930s. including Spain and the Republican struggle. The film presents events up until the fall of ‘The Wall’ surrounding East Berlin in 1989. There is an overall chronology, but the film also draws parallels across movements and events as edits jump between decades and territories.
The film does focus primarily on the European theatre, but there is a section on ‘Socialism and the Third World’. We encounter the Chinese revolution, the rather different revolutions in Cuba, as well as Vietnam and Chile. Also included are darker passages from the past – the Soviet show trials, the Stakhanovite movement and the non-proletarian dictatorships in Eastern Europe post W.W.II.
The structure of the film offers eighteen sections; each introduced by a caption and a quotation from noted political leaders, activist, writers, artists and thinkers. Marx is here, along with Maxim Gorky, John Reed, Bertolt Brecht, Andre Malraux and Jack London.
Each is accompanied by one of the quotation against a red background. The sections are short, averaging 4 to 5 minutes though they vary considerably in length, and the montage is rapid.
The choice of film material draws a continuous interaction between cinema and socialism. Thus the film opens with the famous Lumière film of workers leaving their factory, (La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière a Lyon, Workers leaving the Lumière Factory, 1895). Very quickly we are at the Paris Commune. Later there are extracts from films like Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, 1925) and October (Ten Days that Shook the World, Okltyabr, 1928), but also from D. W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909), Chaplin’s one and two reel comedies, J. B. Priestley’s They Came to a City (1944), Hollywood’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Mathew (Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo, 1964), and The Red Detachment of Women (Honhse Niangzijun, 1961).
This is a powerful and, in many ways, inspiring film. It does what good political films should do – agitate, stimulate, question and inform. The film engages, celebrates but also questions 150 years or so of the main progressive movement in the world under capitalism. The film is absorbing and the use of accompanying music – including soundtracks, jazz, choirs and popular melodies – is an excellent example of sound montage. Several films are featured more than once, but I think only one shot was presented three times. Right at the end, we see again the opening shot from Part III of Battleship Potemkin, the harbour in the early morning mist. This is an example of the complexity of Eisenstein’s conception of montage but the image also provides a metaphor for working class aims – arriving in the safe harbour of socialism and a new order.
The original, longer review is on Third Cinema Blog.