THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY
(UK - 2015)
BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO was a paranoia nightmare told in the vein of a 1970s Italian giallo, THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY follows numerous stylistic tropes seen in BERBERIAN, namely an unabashed adoration of the 1970s and an intricate and fascinating sound design. It's also a bit more substantive than the intriguing but empty BERBERIAN, which opened with a terrific set-up and then didn't really go any deeper than the surface. THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY's much-discussed opening credits sequence would appear to portend a softcore '70s sexploitation outing along the lines of a smutty British sex farce or an EMMANUELLE film, complete with a prominent credit for "Perfume by Je Suis Gizella." It's the story of a BDSM relationship between older, erudite lepidopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and younger, demure protege Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna). Their role-playing takes on an almost JEANNE DIELMAN sense of precision repetition: Evelyn arrives at Cynthia's house, and Cynthia proceeds to make her clean the house, do the laundry, and be treated in all sorts of demeaning fashions, whether it's being interrupted or Cynthia making a mess where Evelyn just cleaned. Often, Cynthia will demand a foot massage. This repeats until we see that they're a loving couple and this is their intimate routine. But Strickland gradually reveals more: it's Cynthia who's the submissive, giving into Evelyn's domination and her demands to be humiliated. It's ultimately a story of the compromises, concessions, and the give-and-take involved in any committed relationship, whether it's one party acquiescing and allowing the use of an old trunk as a coffin for the other to be bound and held in as punishment, or whether one draws the line at treating the other as a "human toilet."
Considering its subject matter, BURGUNDY, whose creative spark was ignited, oddly enough, when Strickland turned down an offer to remake Jess Franco's 1974 film LORNA THE EXORCIST, is hardly the Skinemax softcore throwback you'd expect from the opening credits (which, as amusing and dead-on retro as they are, end up feeling like a stunt that has little to do with what transpires later) and the butterfly symbolism a tad too heavy-handed an obvious (and reminiscent of the 1995 art film ANGELS & INSECTS), but it manages to convey an overtly explicit feel without being very graphic at all. There's barely any nudity and only some fleeting onscreen sex. Yet Strickland's film is a hazy fever dream of erotica, with plenty of caressed skin, a couple of tastefully-executed sex scenes (he keeps the water sports heard but not seen), two excellent performances (Knudsen, in particular), and enough lingering shots of Knudsen's and D'Anna's feet to send it to the top of Quentin Tarantino's Best of 2015 list. (Unrated, 104 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)
(France/Belgium - 2014; US release 2015)
What follows is over two hours of Michel and his task force of interchangeable, nondescript supporting actors unable to make anything stick to teflon Zampa during an obsessive investigation that lasts from 1975 to 1981, and both men see their private lives suffer as a result of their respective professions: Zampa's wife (Melanie Doutey) is temporarily placated when her husband gives her a disco to run (cue Blondie's "Call Me," which must mean the producers couldn't secure the rights to "Heart of Glass," the mandatory song for every establishing shot of a disco in a movie set in the 1970s), but Mrs. Michel (Celine Sallette) grows weary (as will the viewer) of Michel being called away by work from literally every meal he's able to have at home with the family. You could almost make a drinking game out of it. And of course, just as in HEAT, Michel and Zampa have a mid-film confrontation where they acknowledge they're not much different from one another, but they best stay out of the other's way. Jiminez admirably doesn't get sidetracked by paying too much attention to period detail other than long sideburns, a detour to Manhattan that shows off a badly CGI'd shot of the half-built Twin Towers (which were completed by 1975 anyway), and one character name-dropping John Travolta and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. Dujardin and Lellouche are excellent, and Benoit Magimel and Cyril Lecomte have some standout moments as some Zampa criminal associates, but they all deserve more worthy material than this rote, paint-by-numbers non-epic that plays like lukewarm leftovers of too many better movies that inspired it. (R, 135 mins)
(Belgium/France - 2014; US release 2015)
CALVAIRE, Belgian filmmaker Fabrice Du Welz became linked with the French "extreme horror" movement popularized by the likes of Alexandre Aja's HIGH TENSION (2003), Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury's INSIDE (2007), Xavier Gens' FRONTIER(S) (2008) and Pascal Laugier's MARTYRS (2008). Du Welz followed CALVAIRE with the ambitious but unfocused VINYAN (2008), an English-language "ramshackle-boat-journey-upriver as metaphor for journey-into-madness" horror film that took too long to get to its genuinely unnerving, terrifying finale. VINYAN tanked worldwide before going straight-to-DVD in the US in 2009 and Du Welz vanished. He resurfaced in 2014 with a pair of thrillers, ALLELUIA and COLT 45, though only the former has received a US release (Du Welz's next project will bring him to Hollywood 12 years after he made a splash with CALVAIRE--the Chadwick Boseman action thriller MESSAGE FROM THE KING is due out in early 2016). ALLELUIA is a very loose and aggressively unhinged retelling of the 1940s "Lonely Hearts Murders," where spinster nurse Martha Beck and con-artist/gigolo Raymond Fernandez pursued victims through personal ads and proceeded to rob and murder the women whose ads Fernandez answered, with Beck posing as his sister. The story was previously depicted in the 1969 cult classic THE HONEYMOON KILLERS, with Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco, the 1996 Mexican film DEEP CRIMSON, and the barely-released 2006 thriller LONELY HEARTS, which focused on the detectives (John Travolta, James Gandolfini) pursuing the Lonely Hearts serial killers (Jared Leto, Salma Hayek). Du Welz's version updates the story to the present-day, with lonely morgue attendant and single mother Gloria (frequent Almodovar star Lola Duenas) meeting Michel (Laurent Lucas) after her friend Madeleine (Stephane Bissot) posts her profile on an online dating site. After falling hard for Michel even knowing he's a scheming con artist, Gloria impulsively leaves her young daughter with Madeleine and hits the road with Michel, finding women on dating sites and often going for the long con, with Michel marrying them and Gloria posting as his sister. The adventure stirs some kind of psychosis in Gloria, who grows insanely jealous when Michel has to sleep with their marks, which usually results in Gloria going off the deep end and brutally murdering the women. Michel becomes her unwitting accomplice, helping her dispose of the bodies--her job experience at the morgue comes in handy--but as their con games go on, Gloria grows increasingly deranged, with Michel unable to control her and her wild impulses.
Du Welz sometimes gets a little too goofy for his own good, such as Gloria getting a somber musical number before taking a saw to the corpse of the couple's latest victim, or a half-baked attempt at putting a vague supernatural spin on things with Raymond's prayer rituals and a bizarre sequence of a naked Michel and Gloria dancing by a raging fire, but ALLELUIA is a grim and disturbing sleeper that sneaks up on you. A lot of it has to do with the almost claustrophobic immediacy of the grainy, 16mm cinematography by Manuel Dacosse (AMER, THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS), but most of it is the thoroughly off-the-chain performance of Duenas. Du Welz and Duenas pull a cunning bait-and-switch with how plain and mousy she's introduced. You question the logic of her going to work the morning after meeting Michel and having him stay the night, then leaving her daughter with him. Once they're a couple and on the road, Michel soon realizes he has no idea what he's gotten himself into, and doesn't enter into his con games with murder in mind until Gloria puts him in that position. Michel is just a scheming heel who's trying to con lonely women out of their money--it's he who becomes an accomplice to murder and it's he who's forced into murder by Gloria, in whom he's awakened a sleeping giant prone to uncontrolled fits of rage and limb-flailing meltdowns. It's a slightly different take on the subject that seems to have been chosen simply because Du Welz wanted Duenas to let it rip with wild abandon, and she obliges. There are some instances where Du Welz is distracted by what he probably perceived to be transgressive shock value, like a scene where Gloria masturbates while Michel sucks on her toes and jerks off, or when he stages one of the most precariously-framed mainstream cinema blowjobs in recent memory, but ALLELUIA is a mostly effective bit of grim bleakness that stumbles here and there, didn't need the dumb musical number and could use a stronger ending, but Duenas' mad, almost possessed performance makes it a must-see. (Unrated, 93 mins)