[Film Review] Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy poster

Title: Berberian Sound Studio
Year: 2012
Country: UK
Language: English, Italian
Genre: Drama, Horror, Thriller
Director/Writer: Peter Strickland
Music: Broadcast
Cinematography: Nicholas D. Knowland
Toby Jones
Cosimo Fusco
Antonio Mancino
Fatma Mohamed
Salvatore Li Causi
Tonia Sotiropoulou
Chiara D’Anna
Eugenia Caruso
Susanna Cappellaro
Rating: 5.9/10

Berberian Sound Studio 2012

Title: The Duke of Burgundy
Year: 2014
Country: UK
Language: English
Genre: Drama
Director/Writer: Peter Strickland
Music: Cat’s Eyes
Cinematography: Nicholas D. Knowland
Sidse Babett Knudsen
Chiara D’Anna
Fatma Mohamed
Monica Swinn
Zita Kraszkó
Eugenia Caruso
Eszter Tompa
Rating: 8.0/10

The Duke of Burgundy 2014

British filmmaker Peter Strickland is a peculiar figure in the contemporary art-house cinema sphere, his debut KATALIN VARGE (2009) is a Romanian revenge thriller infused with an unearthly trait both in its visual and aural experiments. Now, a double-bill of his consequent two features, both confined in isolated surroundings, introduce an esoteric profession, and furthermore probe the extremity of his unique cinematic language.

BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, is centered on a British sound engineer Gilderoy (Jones), who previously works on projects such as pastoral documents, arrives in Italy to work in a new project from Italian director Giancarlo Santini (Mancino) in the titular studio, which he has no idea is a spooky giallo about witches, anyway he stays and engages in working with the obnoxious producer Francesco (Fusco), but due to the barrier of language and the rude behavior received from his new colleagues, Gilderoy is incapable of blending in with the team and begins to question his professional competence, hallucinations and dreamlike sequences ensue, what is the real deal to bring him to the studio? Is he one of the characters in the giallo flick or an unwitting guinea pig of a bigger but secret project?

Everything will end in a befuddling concussion and here is my main gripe, it is a 93-minutes film, stuffed with minute details towards the omnipresence of sound (both lifeless objects and human voice including screaming and post-dub process), and striking shots of various apparatus and items (mainly vegetables) used to create specific sound in a claustrophobic working environment, lumbers drearily until the last 15 minutes or so (the most banal part is the stereotyped depiction of the Italian crew), the story-line finally begins to project an uncanny angle which piques curiosity, but as if Strickland doesn’t have a clear train-of-thought of what has happened, the picture comes to a halt abruptly, provokes the frustration due to one’s unquenchable satisfaction mixed with a sense of deception, obviously something rotten is festering (other than the vegetables), but there are so little clues being offered for us to conjecture a plausible upshot.

Fortuitously, this bitter taste will be massively dispelled in Strickland’s latest project, THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, a lesbian drama set in an ethereal world with no men in sight (yes, no dukes or whatsoever, even a mannequin sitting among the audience during the academic symposium is female). Cynthia (Knudsen) is a lepidopterologist (a branch of entomology concerning the study of moths and butterflies), actually the film’s title refers to a particular species of butterfly in UK. She lives in a quaint and baroque villa in an anonymous rural area with her younger lover Evelyn (D’Anna), probably her disciple.

Due to Strickland’s ingenious trickery, initially audience is ushered to a scenario of a two-play between Cynthia, a harsh mistress and her subservient maid Evelyn, the latter will be punished if she doesn’t meet the former’s strict demand. Later their real identity lays bare that the two are actual lovers, their double-imaged sex scenes embroider a layer of mystery into their devoted passion, and more shockingly, the punishment is implied to be urolagnia, which immediately explains why Cynthia is persistently shown drinking water before their role-play. So it is about BDSM, a lesbian variant of 50 SHADES OF GREY (2015)? Believe me, it’s much better! The role definition is another twist here, the apparently dominant Cynthia, is really the passive one, all her act is wholesomely scripted by Evelyn in advance, who can only satisfy her libido by being put under some sort of punishment/humiliation, she dictates which line Cynthia should deliver, at what precise moment, which costume and wig she should wear during the occasion. Nevertheless, after the repetitious act, Cynthia grows tired of the game, and mainly because she doesn’t enjoy it sexually, and meanwhile Evelyn becomes more and more difficult to be satisfied, since commitment is the key in role-playing, once Cynthia has a slip of mind in her role, a small chasm will inevitably engenders. After a futile effort to purchase a tailor-made bed or a human toilet (I cannot even imagine what it is), Evelyn’s request escalates to be locked up in an antique chest with hands tied up for the night as a punishment she enjoys, their relationship is under severe strain, until a corny set piece of betrayal opportunely emerges (by cleaning other woman’s boots).

Meritoriously Strickland doesn’t resort to hyperbole, he sticks to the eerie atmosphere, picturesque location, tonal device, to decipher Cynthia’s incubus and Evelyn’s controlling nature, butterflies and specimens are deployed with staggering beauty and the finale, a rotation to the beginning, is a hymn celebrating the delicate equilibrium between two lovers, love demands sacrifice, both parties can take one step back and strive to re-connect from the very start, that is a profound meditation on the nature of love, however cinematically contrived the story is, this end-note remarkably hits the bull’s eye.

Both films feature strong leading performances, Toby Jones in BSS, is an outsider awkwardly boxed up in a bizarrely sonic space, helplessly struggles to get a grip with his own sense while forcibly keeping the appearance of sobriety, and his stern look during a prolonged close-up is a defiant testimony of the perseverance from an unattractive character thespian, if the camera lingers on him longer, he can be an attention-grabber too.

Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, mostly known for Susanne Bier’s Oscar-nominated foreign picture AFTER THE WEDDING (2006) expresses in fluent English and lights up the screen with a sympathetic presentation of a woman plagued by her lover’s grueling quest to challenge the limbo of human lust. Italian actress Chiara D’Anna, also appears in BSS, not a knockout at first sight, but grows on you with her seductive manner of speaking and unyielding determination to delve into the darkest side of her sexual thrill. All in all, TDOB is a deliriously lurid fable with a swooning flagrancy, without a doubt Strickland’s best work to date.

Oscar 2014 - The Duke of Burgundy

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