Berberian Sound Studio (2012), and Duke of Burgundy (2014)

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Director/Writer: Peter Strickland

Peter Strickland both writes and directs these handsome, but frustratingly top-heavy, chamber pieces.

To date, I have seen two of Peter Strickland’s films.  I was lucky enough to catch The Duke of Burgundy in the cinema (where it had only a limited run), and later watched Berberian Sound Studio on television, when it aired on Film4.

The two films share a lot of the same pros — both are beguiling, atmospheric, period-set character studies.  They also share the same core problem — namely, the absence of a satisfying conclusion.  This is probably a little overstated, and I’m aware that complaining about a lack of closure in art cinema is wholly redundant, but I was irked all the same.

In both films, Strickland creates a microcosmic world, out-of-joint with reality, and ornamented with stylised filmic horror.  In Berberian, it is the world of gory Giallo, and in Burgundy, it is the world of softcore sexploitation (think Black Emmanuelle meets Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy).  Both aim for a sumptuous 70’s style-set befitting of their analogues.

Burgundy’s premise is fascinating, and the conceit of Berberian is no less so.  The former is about two lesbian lovers, both lepidopterists, whose relationship is gradually consumed by one party’s escalating fetishism.  The latter concerns a quaint English foley artist, tasked with designing the sound for a splattery Italian horror film.

When I first heard these loglines I was sold.  They were so singularly evocative that I determined to see both films as soon as I possibly could.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Strickland had that same eagerness when he conceived of them.  I imagine both ideas were expedited to the page slightly too soon.  I suppose the trap is: ‘this idea is so good, I needn’t plan it.’, when in reality, the opposite rule applies.  Of course, I am just speculating here.  These ideas might have been gestating in Strickland for decades.

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As I have stated already, my biggest gripe with these films is their endings.  Both tumble into paranoia just slightly before their last reel, and it is at this point (with story tensions coming to a head) that Strickland falls back on his visual language — for the last ten minutes, there’s precious little dialogue, and instead, a montage of images takes over.

In both cases I was reminded of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, a film which I admire greatly.  It is after this fashion that Strickland crafts his climaxes — however, whereas the climax of Don’t Look Now threads images and music together coherently (and movingly), Strickland throws coherence out of the window.  There is no longer any semblance of story, and every bit of intrigue, every question (‘Are these lovers going to kill each other?’, ‘Is the technician going to fall victim to a malevolent force, or insanity?’) is lost in the confusion, as the subtly built-up tautness unspools.

Imagine a child crafting, in laborious and painstaking detail, a highly ornate sandcastle… and then trampling it.

This ‘tease and denial’ of a resolution is more apropos in The Duke of Burgundy, given its context (it is a film about sadomasochism), but Berberian Sound Studio (the weaker of the two films, in my opinion) has even less of an excuse.

I hate to kvetch, especially when there’s so much artistry and intelligence in these films — barely any of which I’ve talked about — but frustratingly, it’s the disappointment I remember best.  After all, even the most fruitful relationships can be tainted by a messy breakup.

In my search for closure, I may just have to watch his 2009 debut Katalin Varga.  Wish me luck.

S.S.

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