THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (WITH LIVE SOUNDTRACK BY CAT'S EYES)
Brighton Dome, Fri 22nd May
Part of the Brighton Festival
This review does contain some PLOT SPOILERS
Before the internet showed up and started recording everything, the fallibility of human memory was almost a creative act. Perhaps you saw some Seventies pseudo-arty piece of erotica shown on BBC2, and over the years your memories of it morphed. So hard was it to see something so ephemeral as a film back then, perhaps you only saw some stills from it, and resorted to imagining what it might be like. It's less that your young mind read more into the film than it was carrying, it's more that the atmosphere of the film and your memories of it ferment over time, acquire a significance which comes to await being pinned to something. Like a dream which stays with you, even though you're never sure why or what it might mean.
Given this, going back to watch the original film is obviously a mistake bordering on category error. It won't add anything to a memory that was only built up subsequently, the film itself can now only undo it all – like pulling the foundations from a tower. One solution, perhaps, is to try and remake the film as you remember it. Which is pretty much what director Peter Strickland is doing here. The Seventies pastiche credit sequence recalls the one for his previous film, 'Berberian Sound Studio', but perhaps here the conceit's enlarged to the whole film.
The programme quoted him as particularly keen to channel the films of Jess Franco, which “struck me as being incredibly rich in atmosphere, intensity and sexual fever”. It notably recycles many of the tropes of Seventies erotic cinema – the inherent kinkiness of lesbianism, assumed to overlap with sado-masochism, the near-hysteric mentality of women – with just enough framing that we know not to take all this entirely seriously. (The audience frequently laughed out loud, though even the absurdest moments are presented deadpan.)
With it's pointedly indeterminate setting in time and place, it could be set in the Seventies, or as easily not. It has the same stilted, distanced feeling of the era, as if the actors are presenting rather than inhabiting the characters. (Often a side-effect of dubbing, though English-language films can have much the same effect, such as 'Picnic at Hanging Rock'.) The central characters, Cynthia and Evelyn, seem to inhabit the same hermetic dream-world, inside which they are either free to pursue their obsessions, or constrained to the same. In fact those central characters are pretty much the only characters, bar a saleswoman, a distantly-glimpsed neighbour and some public talks. (Where some of the audience are quite visibly dummies.) Their cloistered world contains not a single male character.
It's mentioned in passing that Evelyn owns the big house they live in, though she seems to have no job to speak of. While you could speculate over the source of her masochism, the film doesn't seem to encourage this. Its more presented as something she chooses to indulge. She even refers to it at one point as “a luxury”.
The conceit of the film is that Evelyn, ostensibly the masochist of the relationship, is calling all the shots. And Cynthia becomes wearied by the way her life has become so scripted. (In quite a literal sense, she's given cue cards to read like an actor.) Notably, however, if it is Cynthia who has what Hollywood screenwriters would call “the arc” the film starts off with Evelyn and effectively stays with her throughout. Almost every scene, even the ones where Cynthia breaks down under the burden of bossing, are hers. To quote Strickland from the programme again: “The most essential aspect of the film is its dreamy, post-orgasmic flow. One feels as if the film itself is a spell that Evelyn is under. Being under the spell is what she's addicted to.”
Sixties and Seventies culture perhaps became obsessed with the way we live out roles. (Pinter's 1962 play 'The Lover' has many of the same elements.) But perhaps it could never quite decide whether they were liberating or confining. The Situationist writer Raoul Vaneigem railed against roles as an aspect of modern alienation. (“Roles are the bloodsuckers of the will to live. They express lived experience, yet at the same time they reify it. They also offer consolation for this impoverishment of life by supplying a surrogate, neurotic gratification.”) While glam rock embraced them about as fully as can be.
And the recurrent and title-supplying motif of the moths, prevalent enough that they get their own section of the credits, exists to exemplify this. In the film it's both a metamorphosing creature capable of taking shining flight and a pinned and labelled specimen on the wall of Cynthia's study. Yet while Cynthia seems happiest pulling off her wig and peeling her false eyelashes, the film ends with the roles still in place. Her breakdowns against the script just become part of the script - another cycle set on repeat. Like the punishment chest Evelyn insists on being locked in, what makes roles confining ultimately makes them inescapable.
Cat's Eyes are Rachel Zeffira and Horrors singer Faris Badwan, not names I can claim to be familiar with. (Though Badwan was recently controversial for decrying the vote.) It's effective enough. Classical instruments are marshalled into producing rich and leisurely Europop, wafts of choral vocals passing like white clouds in the sky, so sweet it almost tips over into sinister. It matches well enough the spell Evelyn is under.
However, it's not staggeringly memorable and unlike Goblin's 'Suspiria' seeing it performed live doesn't add much. Indeed, in one sense the live setting may even distract. For long periods Strickland uses only ambient sounds – the creak of cupboards, the click-clack of bicycle wheels. At first, there's a structural reason. We enter the film with the roleplaying up and running. Consequently we believe Evelyn may actually be a bullied maid to Cynthia, so the initial note that's struck must be one of realism. However, the soundtrack and the ambient sounds then intersperse through out. Doubtless, the contrast allows each to enhance the other. But there also seems a way in which Strickland is actually employing two soundtracks, keeping the ambient sounds running until we find a musicality in those creaking cupboards.
Yet when the soundtrack is played live it creates a strange reversal of the diegetic and non-diegetic, we see the actual strings being struck but with the 'natural' sound of the cupbaord door being closed there's only a representation projected onto a wall behind them. It can weight what should really be a balance.
'Duke of Burgundy' is perhaps eclipsed by Strickland's two previous films, 'Katalin Varga' and 'Berberian Sound Studio'. But it is certainly well worth seeing, if not necessarily waiting for the soundtrack's next live outing.
LAURIE ANDERSON: ALL THE ANIMALS
Brighton Dome, Sunday 24th May
Part of the Brighton Festival
Four years after her last Brighton festival appearance, Laurie Anderson is back with an assemblage of her stories about animals. At which point you may well ask – animals, why them? A clue might come from an early comment on having read 'Wind in the Willows' as a child, and the oddity of a six year old reading about “eccentric gay bachelors”. The point being that Grahame's fully anthropomorphised animals are really only displaced humans. Whereas her interest is in things between, with one forepaw in human culture and a tail flicking back into the animal world. Hence all the tales of teaching her dog to play keyboards, it going on to headline a lot of animal rights benefits and all the rest.
Which may explain both why animals are so popular with children, and why they are such a staple of fables. And Anderson's conception of stories is basically fables in more modern dress. Her conceit may even be that animals and fables become analogies for one another, as representatives of the indeterminate. In one tale Adam and Eve are morphed into a yachting couple who moor on an island, and the snake offers no apples but instead tells Eve stories.
Her measured, melodiously deadpan delivery leaves you constantly wrongfooted as to how to take things, as she shifts between anecdote, surrealist non-sequiturs and philosophical aphorisms. Did she really do a concert for dogs in Sydney harbour, and did curious whales show up half-way through? Perhaps, she's done stranger things. But the literal truth of the stories doesn't seem to matter much, even for the ones which might actually be true.
The key image may have come early on. Before the earth was created, flocks of birds swarmed the air with nowhere to land, endlessly forming and reforming different shapes. But when one bird dies they have nowhere to bury him, so his daughter inserts him in the back of her head. Then began memory. Memory and the earth thereby become conflated. Each gives you a reference point, they're ordering devices. But ordering devices associated with myth's classic Fall moment – awareness of death.
And Anderson's accumulated stories become like the murmurations of those birds. It's an image remarkably similar to the one in 'Landfall', of her belongings floating in her flooded studio after Hurricane Sandy. As the show moves on things don't develop so much as accrue, images and themes sparking off one another. The earth's gravity never quite takes control. Like the daughter bird, there's no path laid our for us. The show's not about dispelling nuggets of feelgood wisdom or giving you new ideas about the world. It's more like getting a personal trainer for your imagination, making you more alert to associations, sharpening your antennae.
Not unrelatedly absence was also a key theme. There's lists of all the animals who have existed over time but are now gone, there's the Hebrew alphabet kicking off with a silent letter to represent all that can't be said. (I have no idea whether this was something she made up or not!) It suggests these epigrammatic tales are themselves incomplete. They're there largely to hint at larger things, even if its up to us what those larger things might be.
Like the daughter bird, the show is so reliant on us doing so much of the work the glass of water can feel half-empty as easily as half-full. This show worked better for me than her previous Festival appearance. Perhaps I was more keyed in to what to expect, or perhaps the experience is so subjective it may simply be down to what mood you're in on the night.
Something she didn't do at all in Brighton, from Buenos Aires...
Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...