Film reviews: The Duke of Burgundy | Cake

Sidse Babett Knudsen (left) and Chiara D'Anna star in The Duke of Burgundy. Picture: Contributed

Sidse Babett Knudsen (left) and Chiara D'Anna star in The Duke of Burgundy. Picture: Contributed

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FORGET Fifty Shades of Grey, there’s only one BDSM-inspired movie worth watching at your local cinema, writes Alistair Harkness

The Duke of Burgundy (18)

Directed by: Peter Strickland

Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, Fatma Mohamed, Eugenia Caruso

Star rating: ****

Typical, you wait ages for a movie about BDSM and suddenly two come along at once. OK, not really, but if the hitherto fringe interest in relationships predicated on a collective interest in bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism went properly mainstream last week thanks to the release of the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey, the phenomenon gets a weirder, kinkier, but more tender exploration in this latest film from Berberian Sound Studio director Peter Strickland.

Set in a female-only universe very much informed by the soft-core and sometimes quite trippy eroticism of 1970s Euro filmmakers like Jess Franco (Vampyros Lesbos), Just Jaeckin (Emmanuelle) and Tinto Brass (Salon Kitty), The Duke of Burgundy is at once a sincere act of cinematic homage and a serious attempt to explore the relationship dynamics involved when suffering for love is fundamental to a couple’s physical and emotional connection.

Said couple – played by Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna – have a relationship based on a strict set of rules and regulations. Cynthia (Knudsen) is the older of the two and appears to be the more dominant, lounging around her country estate in tight skirts and high heels and ordering Evelyn (D’Anna) to clean her house, rub her feet and wash her lingerie by hand, then hang it up to dry, just so, in her meticulously furnished bathroom. Failure to comply satisfactorily results in Cynthia meting out of various forms of punishment, ranging from treating Evelyn like a piece of human furniture to revealing why she keeps herself so well hydrated. All is not what it seems, however.

Cynthia may have a wardrobe full of bespoke dominatrix gear, but the resigned way she squeezes her middle-aged body into it suggests she’s prefers sitting around in her pyjamas. Away from Cynthia’s home, meanwhile, they spend a lot of time at a local entomology institute, where Cynthia, a lepidopterist, listens intently to lectures while Evelyn eyes up the shiny boots of one of Cynthia’s colleagues. It soon becomes clear that Evelyn is not the meek, servile victim she’s initially presented as. Indeed, as she repeatedly instructs Cynthia in how to better instruct her to do what she wants, we realise it is Evelyn who is more in control.

All of which sounds quite dark. But while Strickland embraces the prurient nature of the story and takes the film to some far out psychosexual places, the relationship itself is quite sweet – or as sweet as can be expected in a film in which talk of birthday presents results in discussions about made-to-order human toilets and specially designed beds that allow you to smother your partner while you sleep.

The outlandish nature of what’s taking place on and off screen (and this is a film that brilliantly utilises the power of suggestion) is complemented by the deadpan-to-the-point-of-stilted line readings from its European cast. These are deliberate. Not only do they pay tribute to the dubbed English of the film’s aforementioned inspirations, they reflect the awkward staginess of Evelyn and Cynthia’s relationship. But what’s fascinating too is that Strickland and his actors dig deep to reveal the emotional reality of the characters’ twisted relationship without ever breaking the illusion of this strange world they’ve created.

In this, The Duke of Burgundy echoes Berberian Sound Studio in the way it becomes a metaphor for the dark art of movie-making. Cythia, after all, is performing to a script and taking direction from Evelyn, who finds that her partner’s reactions can’t always be anticipated, just as a director can’t always anticipate the way his or her actors will respond to their instructions on a given day. Harmony comes not from trying to control every little thing, the film seems to be saying, but by embracing the everyday chaos that makes life and art interesting.

That said, Strickland does keep a fairly tight grip on the story. Save for one wigged-out butterfly effect near the end (and appropriately enough, the title is a reference to a type of butterfly), The Duke of Burgundy makes a lot more sense than the intriguing-but-head-scratching finale of his previous film. Happily, though, it also confirms Strickland as one of the most singular British filmmakers currently working. There’s really nothing else out there like this.

Cake (15)

Directed by: Daniel Barnz

Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Anna Kendrick, Adriana Barraza

Star rating: ***

A skuzzy, scowling and sarcastic Jennifer Aniston is the best thing about this indie-by-numbers redemption tale about a woman with chronic pain learning to live again. Scarred on the inside and out following a car crash, ex-lawyer Claire (Aniston) lives in a pain-numbing fog of prescription drugs, expensive wine and self-pity that has driven away her husband and is testing the patience of her saintly Mexican housekeeper (Adriana Barraza). Acerbic with everyone, she becomes obsessed with the suicide of a young woman (Anna Kendrick) from her support group, who begins to literally haunt her dreams and eventually her reality. These scenes hint at the traditions of magic realism, but are really just there to dramatise Claire’s internal struggle – as if the movie doesn’t trust Aniston to convey this without narrative tricks. That’s too bad, because the film’s contrivances undercut its star’s determination to steer the film away from the kind of quirky melodrama movies of this ilk have been mining since American Beauty.

Predestination (15)

Directed by: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook

Star rating: ***

Orlando meets Looper in Predestination, a nutty, retro spin on time travel starring Ethan Hawke as a “temporal agent” on the hunt for a terrorist who has eluded him throughout his career.

His final quest brings him into contact with a young writer with an extraordinary past to whom he makes an equally extraordinary offer: a chance to kill the person they claim ruined their life without fear of reprisals. It’s at this point the film takes a diversion into the truly bizarre as twin directors Michael and Peter Spierig (Daybreakers) add a crazy story involving abandonment, the secret history of space travel and the struggle for gender equality.

Convoluted time paradoxes ensue and while it doesn’t all tie together, the film’s commitment to its own increasingly bizarre revelations makes up for its expository awkwardness and occasional lack of flash.

Project Almanac (12A)

Directed by: Dean Israelite

Starring: Johnny Weston, Virginia Gardner

Star rating: **

There’s more time travel in Project Almanac, a found footage movie in which a group of high school friends use their new-found time-warping abilities to go to music festivals, pass chemistry tests and seize romantic moments they missed first time around. Having a time machine, in other words, is clearly wasted on the young – particularly when jumping into the past begins to have detrimental effects on the present. Thenceforth the film keeps threatening to become interesting.

Sadly, its many plot holes prevent its ideas from gaining traction and there’s an unfortunate strain of casual misogyny that’s far too redolent of producer Michael Bay’s own dismal oeuvre.

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