THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (2015, Peter Strickland)
When I watched BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO on Netflix a year ago, I was in movie heaven for about 15 minutes. Strickland grabs you by the eyeballs right away and keeps you fixated with sound design and editing. But then it crawled further up its own asshole until I was bored and checked out the last half hour or so. Yet even with that mixed reaction, I was eagerly anticipating Strickland’s next effort, hoping it would iron out the kinks and deliver the pure visual splendor he promised early on. And for the most part, he kinda did.
Just as contained and claustrophobic as BERBERIAN, this quiet and bizarre love story keeps its visual mastery going throughout, and only partially crawls up its own asshole (or, in this case, into its own vagina for an ill-advised 10-minute dream sequence before backing out of said spread-legged crotch to continue the narrative). In a curious and admirable move, Strickland creates a world devoid of men — like a parallel ecosystem where only female homo sapiens exist (and perhaps there is an order of butterflies and caterpillars that works the same way). By doing this, he takes gender out of the equation completely: the marriage in this film isn’t between two women in the way a lesbian relationship in the real world would be, but between two people; there is no other option. These women can’t be queer if there are no more conventional romantic partners to choose from.
But as the relationship takes shape, it makes its point early on and then spins its wheels for the middle section. Danish lead actress Sidse Babett Knudsen is so phenomenal in the role of Cynthia that we understand exactly where her mind and heart are every step of the way. All it takes it a subtle shift in her delivery of the script Evelyn writes for her for us to figure out how she feels about the situation — and because of that, Strickland doesn’t need to hammer it for as long as he does. It’s almost as if he didn’t trust Knudsen’s skills enough, and made sure the screenplay conveyed what it needed to. (And he’s right not to trust co-lead Chiara D’Anna — her performance as Evelyn is amateur hour compared to Knudsen).
Yet those shots of laundry soaking in bubbly, soapy water, or of the water glass Cynthia gulps from, or the keyhole Evelyn stares through… images that stick with you not just because of their repetition but because of their composition and timing. Strickland’s interest in this world mirrors that of a scientist studying the peculiar habits of human beings existing in their natural habitats, and the routines they embark upon when choosing a mate. In that way, Cynthia’s career makes perfect sense, and if we’re just insects who will be classified and dissected in death, then love is indeed a strange and heartbreaking endeavor.