It’s happening. I’m not even being as efficient as I could be in my movie-going, but I’m still approaching a fatigue point with AFI Fest. I think it’s understandable though. Despite the fact that all I do when I get to the theater is sit down, it still takes a lot of mental exertion to get up to Hollywood and Highland, especially when I’ve already been up since 6 am for money-earning purposes. Then there’s the fact that I have a rather important engagement tomorrow morning – one that is currently weighing heavily on my mind. This perfect storm leaves within my soul a nervousness and a sleepiness that is totally useless. But that is even more reason to come to the festival today; I could use a diversion.
But there is a fine line between diversion and obsession. The word “diversion” shares the same Latin root as the Spanish word “divertido” which translates in English to “fun.” Fun (of a certain type) is probably what Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) was seeking when she entered the world of BDSM with her partner Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) in Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy. The movie is a genre pastiche of softcore female exploitation films, much in the same way that Strickland’s previous film, Berberian Sound Studio, took on classic conventions of Italian gialli pictures. Despite the salaciousness of his inspiration, Strickland treats his subject matter with the utmost seriousness.
Sure, there is the fact that The Duke of Burgundy seemingly takes place in a universe where there are no men, bondage beds are in high demand, and the main way to pass time is by attending entomology seminars, but that is stylistic world-building. And yes, Strickland’s film plays into the male gaze every once in a while, but that is a necessary aspect of the type of movie he is deconstructing; Strickland cuts away from lewd content more often than he depicts it. The writer-director is more interested in looking at what happens between the sex scenes. This isn’t pornography, people. It’s a relationship drama.
We learn very early in the film that Evelyn takes immense pleasure in being dominated by Cynthia. But that is not a role that Cynthia plays naturally; she is provided with instructions and a script by her lover, and merely plays the part for Evelyn’s benefit. Cynthia would be more comfortable cuddling in bed in pajamas, but she is – as Dan Savage would describe it – GGG (good, giving and game).
Evelyn pushes Cynthia outside her comfort zone, and the more wary woman is always willing to play along. The movie has some interesting points to make about dominance. If the submissive player is making all of the rules, than who is really in charge of the game? Indeed, in those moments where Cynthia attempts to assert herself or take control, it barely registers in Evelyn’s mind.
The first half of the film is really excellent, humorously juxtaposing the movie’s crude nature with the mundanities of the central relationship. Bickering over chores seems especially ridiculous when you’ve just seen one of the bickerers sat on like a chair. But as the film continues, the real power imbalance (and satisfaction imbalance) begins to take a toll, and Strickland’s more abstract filmmaking tendencies take over.
I won’t say I didn’t like Berberian Sound Studio – I suppose I just didn’t get it. But in both mine and the film’s defense I had zero experience with giallo before I saw it. Regardless, when the movie devolves into a surreal mess toward its conclusion, I could at least appreciate the artistry in it. While the metaphysical turn in The Duke of Burgundy is not nearly as intense as the switch in Sound Studio, it is still really evocative, even if some of these sequences are too long.
The Duke of Burgundy is a really exciting film that takes a look at politics within relationships in a really fresh way. In the current cinematic landscape it is unique in both style and substance. The movie was an excellent distraction from the anxiety-inducing realities of my own life, though only temporarily. Unfortunately my body demands a full night of sleep, so my coverage of Day Eight concludes, but I will be back for the final day of AFI Fest, hopefully rested and in a good mood.
Steven’s coverage of AFI Fest also includes a review of A Most Violent Year from Day One, a look at all of the sex and violence from Day Two, a review of Breathe from Day Three, an examination of the struggle to survive from Day Four, a review of the experimental Fish & Cat from Day Five, and an analysis of fluctuating identity from Day Six.