The Duke of Burgundy

A film inspired by the arty-trashy cinema of Europeans like Jess Franco, Jean Rollin and Walerian Borowczyk. I'm a dabbler in this stuff, and The Duke of Burgundy certainly hits the 1970s Euro-sleaze sweet spot between the ridiculous and evocative. I must admit I didn't get those references, however. Because while some of the trappings are similar – lesbianism, sadomasochism, the self-contained quality of a fairy tale – the drama is much more down-to-earth. The women are older (one has a bad back). And they are for all intents and purposes in a marriage that's breaking apart. The institution may appear strange (all-female dominant and submissive pairs in a society revolving entirely around BDSM and lepidoptery), but the situation is all too familiar.

And the two leads are very good at conveying the pain of that crumbling relationship. Cynthia (the one with the bad back) is losing interest in the sexual games Evelyn finds so exciting, but she plays along to keep her partner happy. Except that eventually Evelyn realises she's faking it. Although Evelyn is the submissive, she is the one writing the roleplay scripts. The most endearing and heartbreaking part of the film is watching Cynthia desperately trying to keep Evelyn happy, even though she's the one handing out commands and punishments.

The lepidoptery may just be a reference, but I thought the fusty, regimented, obsessive nature of the practice is a fitting comment on the repetitive sexual lives of the characters – constantly going through the same motions. The ultimate horror in the film is of living in a world that can't change, pinned down like a butterfly in a glass cabinet. Objectification is inescapable, even in a world without men.


The Shape of Night

This is a very bleak film, and an effective one, powered by two outstanding performances. Miyuki Kuwano plays Yoishe, who transforms from a sparkling 19-year-old working behind a bar to an utterly emotionless 25-year-old turning tricks on the street. Just as compelling is her caretaker / tormentor Eiji (played by Mikijirō Hira) who charms her and ends up pimping her out.

It's an old story. What makes it interesting is the complete power-reversal the film ends on. Eiji is crippled in a Yakuza turf battle, and turns into a docile house-husband. Yoishe is the breadwinner, who is offered an escape by a smitten customer. The central question in the film is whether she has the guts to abandon Eiji, and it's stretched out to an excruciating degree. Despite the years of abuse, including a horrific incident of gang rape by Eiji’s yakuza overlords, the decision pushes Yoishe beyond the edge. She feels bound to him, despite her own power, and his despicable actions.

A sense of duty that goes beyond all reason is the film’s theme, and that of the BFI season it is a part of. A Shape Of Night pulls no punches in exploring it.


The Night of the Hunted

Made on a ridiculously low budget and to a very tight four-week schedule, Jean Rollin somehow manages to create something evocative and eerie. The plot is rudimentary: a radioactive leak turns people into zombies, so they are imprisoned in an imposing corporate tower block and killed when the final brain-cell switches off. As with other zombie films, a nefarious corporate presence lurks in the background. The difference here is that the undead are innocent victims who are exploited and killed like sheep. This being Rollin, they are also beautiful and frequently unclothed, but you can read that in a reflexive direction if you want – the machine reducing people to attractive mindless bodies.

It ends up being a rather sweet film. The hero who is sucked into this nighttime conspiracy by the stunning Brigitte Lahaie is smitten, and joins her in becoming zombified. Perhaps love can't overcome all obstacles, but it's worth clinging on to nonetheless.


Immoral Tales

Borowczyk's four lewd, weird films don't really cohere without watching the introductory fifth. A Private Collection is just a catalogue of obscene objects, mostly of Borowczyk's own manufacture. In the enclosed space of a bourgeois flat dark secrets are revealed which underline the hypocrisy of the 'moral police'.

All very well as a tirade against censoring sex. But it's the sense of confinement that lingers. Borowczyk's eroticism is strangely sequestered and controlling. He beavers away at these films in the same way as he does his animations and props. It's a private universe in which he has the final say.

Thus we get a domineering youth who commands his cousin to fellate him while he lectures her on the movement of the tides. Then a girl besotted with the omniscient voice of God –  which provides sexual comfort in an environment of abuse. Then Elizabeth Báthory using her noble status to round up and butcher maidens so she can bathe in their blood. And finally Lucrezia Borgia led into the papal palace to be 'worshipped' by her father and brother.

Borowczyk is detail-orientated. He lovingly lingers over the objects that crowd his films, which is why A Private Collection is the apotheosis of his erotica – human flesh removed entirely. He is a set designer with a camera, a builder of entrancing but lifeless tableaus.


The Blue Sky Maiden (Blue Sky Daughter)

Masumura made a lot of films, only the more unconventional of which are well known in the West. I saw this at the BFI, and doubt it has a DVD release. There is no hint here of the perversities of Blind Beast or the gore of Red Angel. That said, Masumura’s interest in awkward family dynamics is front and centre, even if the genre is melodrama, and the ending happy.

Or so it may seem. Yuko is a Cinderella who finds a Prince Charming, but given everything we see of Tokyo living you wonder whether she was better off staying true to her roots and choosing the local boy from her village (her teacher, but that’s ok apparently). Yuko is illegitimate, and her father did her a favour when he sent her away from his nightmare of a family. Masumura is very good at showing that the fault ultimately lies with him. He was never reconciled to the loveless marriage he was talked into, and his indifference turned his wife into a harpy and his children into brats.

Yuko marries for love, but it’s another posh boy. There’s a subtle class divide bisecting the characters in the film, which Yuko steps over. A philosophy grad, Masumura’s sympathies lie closer to the philosophy-spouting delivery boy, as well as the hard-pressed family maid and the striving teacher-come-artist.

The plot comes from a novel, and Masumura handles the twists deftly. There’s a good deal of fancy camerawork where wide shots move into to closeups and back. And a satisfying shape to the film is provided by the opening and closing scenes on the shore, where blue sky thinking is embraced as a survival mechanism and then discarded when no longer needed. It’s accomplished, in other words, and goes to show that Masumura was good at this sort of thing. There’s a reason he made so many movies.


Thor: Ragnarok

There's something interesting going on behind the jokes here. Director Taika Waititi casts himself as Korg, a failed revolutionary (he didn't print enough pamphlets haha) who leads an insurrection against Jeff Goldblum's gilded planetary Emperor. The film splices this rather awkwardly with the return of Hela to Asgard, but there is a parallel between the two stories. It turns out that before Odin became a cuddly grandpa enjoying his retirement, he and Hela were bloodthirsty empire-builders. Behind the paintings on the ceiling of the Asgardian throne room (which celebrate the virtue and diplomacy of Odin and his two sons) there is a darker history of conquest and genocide. There must be some resonance here for Waititi, who is from New Zealand and has a Māori father.

This may not just be a comment on the beastly British, but on how American soft power (of which Marvel Studios is a part) disguises the real hard power it can wield. The revolution isn't a joke, at least not entirely. Asgard falls at the end of the film – its people become refugees. Again there is a parallel with contemporary events, but the film flips it so it's not the victims of empire that are seeking sanctuary on Earth, but the beneficiaries. From being lords of the universe to being at the mercy of foreign hostile powers – there are bitter twists in this otherwise sugary cocktail of a film.


Red Angel

A very grim war film focused on a nurse on the front line and with plenty of horrible amputations, vomit and blood. As usual with Masumura, things take a turn for the bizarre and depraved. The hero is an angel in hell, who cannot countenance being responsible for other people’s deaths. The first of her ‘victims’ raped her, but she still tries to save him, in so doing establishing her saintly nature.

The film is at its most interesting when it explores the strange power dynamic of being a woman surrounded by damaged men. Nishi must suffer frequent sexual assault, but she is also the one holding soldiers down when their limbs are being removed. She is in a position to torture her torturers, but she never takes the opportunity, being loyal to the last.

Instead the film establishes a melodramatic romance between Nishi and a taciturn surgeon who is addicted to morphine. The drug makes him impotent, and Nishi has to hold him down as well through his withdrawal to cure him from that ailment. She helps to make a man out of him, and he dies with a broken sword in his hand. But she also gains power. In the sweetest scene in the film, the surgeon allows her to put on his lieutenant uniform, serves her wine and treats her like a man. Granted, he refuses to give her his sword and gun (there are limits to cross dressing and female empowerment), but it’s still a striking moment of reciprocity and empowerment.



I'm not a Hitchcock aficionado but am persuaded that this may be his best film. Plot-wise it's improbable to say the least, but the mechanics of the mystery thriller, with its clear-cut character motivations and alibis, have never been that intriguing to me. David Thomson may be right that film thrives on ambiguities, and Hitchcock's failure is that he is too fussy to leave things unexplained. Vertigo is interesting probably because it's more than just an exercise in suspense. There's a bit more of Hitchcock in it, and that gives the viewer more to delve into.

Specifically we get Hitchcock's own strange attitudes to women and actresses on screen. Kim Novak is remade twice in Vertigo. Her character is transformed by male desires for love and money. She is as Hitchcock (and his protagonist Scotty) want her: supremely acquiescent – the obedient actress submitting to her director.

But then there is the title sequence, which suggests that women’s faces are dangerously hypnotic. They spin you about – give you vertigo. Women as actresses are fascinating but deceptive. They leave you and lie to you. Novak is both imperious and vulnerable. In fact there's a tinge of sadomasochism in Madeleine’s grey suits, tightly-wound hair and gloves. Judy’s purple evening gown is looser, more relaxed – she is being genuinely herself. But Scotty forces her back into her corset.

And actually that idea is planted early with the chat about brassieres in the beginning of the film – prurient on Hitchcock’s part, but also introducing the idea of women moulded by the science and stratagems of male fetishists. Just as a famous airman turns to applying his know-how to the design of female underwear, so the detective turns to dressing up his girl so that she becomes his ideal woman. He's suffers for it, of course. Novak is killed off in a church by a nun – the Gothic scene suggesting the punishment of forbidden desire.

I ended up feeling most sorry for the friend-zoned Midge, who offers a safe way to deal with Scotty's agoraphobia – a stepladder in the living room. Instead he gets tangled up with a femme fatale and ends up climbing a church tower. Midge is a friend who interacts with Scotty on equal terms. But Scotty wants to dominate and be dominated by women. That is what draws him to Novak, and dooms him.


Blade Runner 2049

Helen Lewis’s blog is a superb intro to the concerns of the film, although I disagree with her reading of K’s confrontation with the 50 foot advert version of his artificial girlfriend Joi. Lewis thinks it’s an attempt to "create a touching moment of remembrance" which fails. But at that point K is once again convinced he is a droid, and the girlfriend he lost is just another AI. The scene felt to me like a recognition that their relationship was a lie, they are both slaves, and the only way to reclaim freedom is to fight the owners of the means of production.

I’m not entirely sure what the plot of the film is, but I’m pretty confident it doesn’t make a great deal of sense. It doesn’t matter if you come for the mood of the thing (and at three hours it's plenty moody). All the characters look and act like replicants, the bad guy at the top of the pyramid most of all. The film is about a longing for the organic and genuine in an artificial alienating world. And as such it is a triumph.