Forget ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ and Check Out ‘The Duke of Burgundy’

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Looking at the trailer for “The Duke of Burgundy,” I couldn’t help but expect a sexploitation flick with lots of nudity and dozens of butterflies. But while the movie does deal with a sadomasochistic relationship between two women, it actually turns out to be a domestic drama about two people who love one another deeply. When the movie starts, however, it looks like this relationship is reaching its breaking point.

“The Duke of Burgundy” starts off with an innocent looking woman named Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) cycling over to a grand mansion where she is greeted coldly by Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who bluntly informs her she is late for work. From there it looks like Evelyn works as Cynthia’s maid and is rudely ordered around and made to do chores, each of which are increasingly demeaning. It’s a daily routine for these two, and the day ends with Cynthia punishing Evelyn behind a closed bathroom door. We have a good idea of what Cynthia’s doing to her, but director Peter Strickland is more content to let us visualize what’s happening instead of showing us everything.

At this point, I became very eager for Evelyn to smack Cynthia in the face, but as the saying goes, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover. What’s actually happening is that these two are in a relationship where Evelyn is the submissive one and Cynthia is the dominant one. They are deep into role playing and enjoy each other’s company more than we could have realized. But as “The Duke of Burgundy” continues on, it becomes apparent that a compromise in this relationship is desperately needed. We see in Cynthia’s eyes a longing for a more normal relationship, but Evelyn has become hopelessly addicted to the submissive role she plays and wants her lover to punish her more aggressively than ever before. With any addiction, you eventually come to find too much is not enough.

This movie surprised me throughout as it plays around with what you think you know about sadomasochism to where you’d expect Cynthia to come out dressed as a dominatrix and carrying a big whip. But if you strip away the strange and painful things they do to one another, you see their relationship is no different from any other, and like any relationship, there needs to be some compromise. The question is, who’s willing to compromise more?

Both D’Anna and Knudsen are perfectly cast, and they nail each of their characters’ complexities with a lot of depth. It’s fascinating to watch their relationship evolve to where the most dominant one is actually Evelyn as she continually begs Cynthia to feed her dark desires. Knudsen, in particular, has a great moment where she’s getting intimate with D’Anna, and you see this wounded look in her eyes which says without words how this relationship is becoming a lot less comfortable for her.

“The Duke of Burgundy” is also one of the most beautifully filmed movies I’ve seen in a while as it looks like it was shot on 16mm film to where you think you’re watching something from the 70’s. To my astonishment, I discovered it was shot digitally which completely blew my mind. Many congratulations go to cinematographer Nic Knowland who has been working in movies since the 60’s. The lush and hazy look he gives this movie feels magical and makes you realize what amazing things can be captured with digital cameras. It was also fascinating to learn many of the images were created in the camera and not in post-production.

The movie also features a very unique and original score by Cat’s Eyes, an alternative pop duo made up of two musicians from entirely different disciplines. Their music adds immeasurably to the story which reaches a fever pitch towards the end when this relationship looks to be doomed. Like Mica Levi’s score for “Under the Skin,” I have a hard time comparing Cat’s Eyes score to others out there. Here’s hoping they compose more film scores in the future.

Strickland previously directed “Berberian Sound Studio” which brought him to the attention of many film critics who became immediately enthralled with his work. I regret to say I haven’t seen that movie yet, but watching “The Duke of Burgundy” does make me want to check it out sooner than later. Strickland shows a strong mastery of the filmmaking process, and he ends up taking us on a journey unlike few other have recently. He also tricks us into thinking we are watching one type of movie, and he ends up giving us something which is not only different but far deeper and more mesmerizing than we ever could have expected.

I also want to point out that there’s not a single male character to be found in this movie. That’s actually pretty amazing considering how hard it is to think of an American movie where this is the case. I’m sure there’s one like this one out there, but nothing comes to mind right away.

What bums me out is audiences will not be quick to come out in droves to see a movie like “The Duke of Burgundy.” Small and original movies like these tend to get swept under the rug far too quickly in this day and age of superhero franchises, and I hope those with a taste for challenging and unusual material will give it a shot. What Strickland has given us is an edgy fairy tale which could take place in any time period, and he sucks us into a story you cannot help but be enthralled by. With any luck, we’ll get more challenging movies like this one in the future. At the very least, it’s infinitely better than the awful monstrosity which is “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Movies My Parents Wanted Me To See: Love Actually

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Around Christmas, most families watch “A Christmas Carol” as an annual holiday tradition. Others watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” which I still haven’t seen (don’t ask me why). For my family, their annual tradition is not “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” but a British romantic comedy called “Love Actually.” I myself prefer “Bad Santa” with Billy Bob Thornton, but I’m in the minority of those in my family who want to see it at Christmas time. Now when it comes to romantic comedies, I usually can’t stand them because they all look the same. But my parents kept begging me to watch it just like they did with “The Big Lebowski,” so I gave in and sat on one of those comfy leather chairs they have. It took me no time to be won over by what was shown onscreen, and it got off to a perfect start with Hugh Grant’s character of Prime Minister David saying:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion is starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywThere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board weren’t messages of hate or revenge, they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”

Now whereas your average romantic comedy focuses on one relationship which goes from its wonderful beginning to its horrific breakup only for those same two people getting back together again, “Love Actually” instead focuses on relationships between eight couples. So basically, we get to view love in all its various stages from where it is just starting for some, become uncertain for others, remains unrequited for the unlucky few, and young love which is typically fret with wonder and the first of many heartaches. You have no clear idea where the movie is going, and this is what makes it so good. You become so enamored of these characters and what they go through, and you feel all the various emotions they are forced to deal with.

“Love Actually” was directed by Richard Curtis who brought to the screen one of the all-time great romantic comedies with “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Like that one, he keeps a sweet and mostly innocent tone which never becomes overly manipulative as it does in American movies. Plus, he gets nothing but genuine emotions from the actors, and this is a big help to say the least. With a cast as great as this, you can always expect them to make their characters appear as real as they can be.

In describing the various stories, I think it’ll be easier to talk about my favorite moments from the film. One which comes immediately to mind is the story of Juliet (Keira Knightley) who has just married Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whose best man Mark (Andrew Lincoln) videotapes their wedding. There’s one problem, all the footage Mark gets is of her. Watching Keira pick up on this and realize what it means is powerful, and Mark’s reaction to her is perfectly complemented by Dido’s “Here with Me.” Hence the pain of unrequited love comes up again, dammit.

Then you have Alan Rickman, so sublime in every role he plays, as Harry who works as a managing director of a design agency whose secretary Mia is not so subtly hitting on him. However, he is happily married, or so it seems, to Karen (Emma Thompson). Karen’s reaction to the present she didn’t expect to get is a painful one to witness. Thompson, dare we ever forget, is still an amazing actress who can move you without using words. The things people can tell about others without having to spell it out represents how good the screenplay is.

The hardest actor to watch in “Love Actually,” however, is Liam Neeson as we see his character trying to move on after the sudden death of his wife. You can’t help but think of what happened to his real-life wife Natasha Richardson when Neeson delivers a touching eulogy here to his movie wife. But getting past that, it’s fun to watch the wonderful relationship he has with his stepson Sam (Thomas Sangster) as he convinces him to chase after the girl he pines for. This might seem foolish in hindsight because we don’t want to see our kids get their hearts shattered at such a young age, but it doesn’t make sense to bottle up your feelings forever, does it?

Now while this movie has a wealth of fantastic British actors like any “Harry Potter” movie, a few Americans do find their way into the mix. The most prominent one is the always fantastic Laura Linney who portrays Sarah, a woman tending to her mentally ill brother Michael while harboring an insatiable crush on the devastatingly handsome Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). For such a well-trained stage actress, Linney has such emotionally honest moments which she handles with such delicate subtlety. Seriously, it gets to where you don’t even realize she is acting.

As for Grant, you can always count on him to bring the befuddled nervousness from “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and perform it to sheer comic perfection in a movie like this. I also loved the scene in which he puts the American President (Billy Bob Thornton) back in his place. You’d figure he would be stumbling about, but he plays the Prime Minister after all, and this is a Prime Minister who is not looking for a Bush/Blair relationship. Also, seeing him go door to door looking for the girl who strikes his fancy leads to a comic highpoint where he is forced to sing carols for young kids, and they react as if they were at a Justin Bieber concert.

But the one actor who steals the show in “Love Actually” is the hilarious Bill Nighy who plays the aging rock and roll legend Billy Mack. He is a gift for those who do not want their Christmas movie characters to be overly, if at all, sentimental. The contempt Billy has for himself as he promotes his “festering turd of a record” is somewhat softened by his inescapable sense of humor even when he blatantly acts inappropriately:

“Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them to you for free!”

Colin Firth’s performance as broken-hearted writer Jamie Bennett serves as a reminder of why women still swoon over him ever since he was in “Pride & Prejudice.” Watching him as he professes his love for his housemaid Aurélia (Lúcia Moniz) shows how disarmingly polite he can even while he is clearly scared to death. It’s all funny and touching at the same time. It’s also fun watching him trying to master the Portuguese language which he has the same amount of luck with as Lieutenant Uhura had trying to speak Klingon in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.”

There are several other cute stories in “Love Actually” worth taking in like the budding relationship which builds up between John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page). It’s great seeing John talk about how nice it is to have someone to chat with while he and Judy are working buck naked as stand-ins for a sex scene in a movie. It gives new meaning to the term “skip the foreplay.”

Granted, some stories in “Love Actually” get shorter shrift than others, but everything seems to balance out just right. Movies these days tend to be better when they are condensed in structure, but the mix of stories on display here serves to show how powerful love can be to lift us up and tear us down in a heartbeat. I’m so glad this romantic comedy is anything but conventional. There are so many of them out there, several of them starring Katherine Heigel, that it drives me up the wall.

I do have to mention something in particular about the film; when we watch all the characters meeting up at the airport, it is interspersed with images of people meeting their family and loved ones at Heathrow Airport, so happy to see each other. It blends perfectly into the movie and makes you realize just how true to the heart “Love Actually” is in what it portrays. Having written this, I now understand and appreciate why my parents have made watching this movie an annual Christmas tradition.

I still like “Bad Santa” better though…

* * * * out of * * * *