Saturday, 19 December 2015

Movie Review: The Duke Of Burgundy/Mommy (2015)

In a society where Rule 34 is enforced by smut peddlers on a global scale, we have grown strangely accustomed to a wide variety of sexual practices. That is to say that we have found a way to look at pretty much any sex act and turn it into something to mock. I would argue that this is just a more harmless side effect of our collective attitudes to whatever isn’t of the norm, except it may not actually be harmless. Sure, making fun of people who think that being a member of NAMBLA is something to be proud of is more than fair; they should be more than used to the idea of being taken advantage of against their wishes. However, take something far less repulsive at its core like, say, BDSM. It undoubtedly falls into that general umbrella of “it’s your business what goes in the bedroom”, yet it is usually treated as either an easy target for jokes or an easy target for exploitation. As much as I think Fifty Shades Of Grey is far too silly to be taken seriously as a depiction of that lifestyle, it is still another in a long line of films that never think to treat it as something that humans do. Enter today’s film, which looks set to try and change that. This is The Duke Of Burgundy.

The plot: To all outward appearances, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her protégé Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) seem like any other ordinary teacher-student pairing. However, what goes on behind closed doors, particularly in the bedroom, is far from what people would consider “ordinary”. They live a content life fulfilling a BDSM roleplay for each other, but soon the rigid structure of their activities begins to wear on Cynthia’s mind. As their boundaries are pushed further and further, it seems like their relationship may come to a very bitter end.

One of the biggest problems when it comes to any kind of erotic cinema is, basically, down to human biology. In order to really work, such a film has to appeal to both the emotional and instinctual sides of the audience. Trouble is, this involves appealing to both the brain and the… other brain, and the human body doesn’t have enough blood to run both of them at the same time. As a result, filmmakers usually either make exceptionally boring films with pretences of eroticism or the kind of films that horny teenagers hunt down clips for on YouTube for ‘the articles’. It is amazingly rare to find a film that satisfies both areas. This is why Secretary is one of the few counterpoints being brought up in response to Fifty Shades; because it is seriously one of the very few that exist. That, and it’s hard to ignore how similar the names of the male leads are. Well, time to add another entry to that shortlist.

As much as I am beginning to think that reviewing Peter Pan XXX wasn’t the best idea I’ve had this year, it is still a good thing I looked at it in retrospect because it helps give some clarity for probably this film’s biggest strength: It is subtle. Yeah, the film about a dominant/submissive relationship that requires one of them to constantly be drinking water actually knows what it’s doing in terms of subtlety. Even with how… different their expression of love for each other can get, it never goes into the hideously graphic. It’s tastefully shot, Knudsen and D’Anna have remarkable chemistry and, probably most surprising of all, it portrays certain sexual kinks in a way that gives definite respect to those who partake in them. This isn’t merely an exercise in showing the less vanilla methods of love, but rather an attempt to humanize it; something that is desperately needed after the horrors that arrived earlier in the year.

This is an amazingly well written relationship between Cynthia and Evelyn, delving far beneath the surface of the more commonly accepted BDSM stereotypes. Cynthia is the dominant half and, while she is more than happy to oblige Evelyn’s want to be lorded over, she wonders on occasion if she is going too far. There are even points in the film where she actively takes on the role, even against Evelyn’s wishes. Evelyn may be the submissive but she is by no means without power; she’s actually the brains behind most of the operation. She may like being the slave but that doesn’t mean that she always likes to be humiliated; the fantasy and the reality don’t have to intersect, as she does worry about being made a fool of in public.

When the two connect, the strict schedule that their roleplaying follows understandably leads to friction after a while; it may be a cliché to say that being spontaneous in a relationship is often needed, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Cynthia wants to express her feelings in more ways than acting cold to her and, as a result, Evelyn starts to feel unfulfilled herself. But probably the best part about how their coupling is depicted is also something shockingly simple: When a problem arises, they solve it together. They fight, and things do get dark in places, but never irreversibly so. In short, they are an ordinary couple regardless of their bedroom antics. There’s even a few moments that, dare I say it, are kind of relatable in their own way, like when Evelyn asks to be let out of a wooden trunk because her leg is itchy.

Since the film’s content never really delves into the realm of actual porn, Peter Strickland decided to stick to film school porn instead. First off, without making the frame feel unnaturally cold except when it is genuinely called for, Strickland and cinematographer Nic Knowland give a certain darkly erotic tinge to the production, verging on the edge between sensual and dangerous; fitting, given the subject matter. There’s also the insect motif which, while simultaneously obtuse and heavy-handed, does grant the film some truly gorgeous imagery and a particularly unnerving sequence where they swarm the screen. The soundtrack by Cat’s Eyes strikes a similar chord in terms of tone, going from beautiful nights-by-the-fireplace pieces to more chilling and frantic numbers.

All in all, this is a dark, very well-crafted and cleverly written romance. The acting is excellent, the production values are probably some of the best I’ve seen all year and the writing brings a lot of normalcy and genuine humanity into a subject that rarely gets any respect. Rather than being an ill thought-out fetishizing, this film wanted to show both the positive and negative sides of such an arrangement and make it less of an absolute taboo. In all honesty, Strickland did a fantastic job at doing exactly that. It’s better than Crimson Peak, as the core romance here is a thousand times stronger. However, simply because it just kept me more engaged throughout, it ranks just below Creed.

Everyone, to some degree, has a mental disorder that either has been dialed down and given a populace-friendly acronym or is undiagnosed but still more common than the person in question may realize. I myself have been handed a series of diagnoses over my lifetime, and may still have some waiting in the wings, but it’s not exactly something I treat that seriously. My thoughts about the debates going on about people on the autistic spectrum (which encompasses a metric crap-ton of labels) is along the same lines as my attitude to the ongoing QUILTBAG debates: Admitting to such things isn’t automatically brave. It is rather unnerving that we live in a society where openly saying that you are one thing or another is something to be commended for, rather than just being a mundane part of the human experience. I come from a family that is very pro-autism awareness since my own diagnosis, and even though I applaud their enthusiasm on the subject, there’s only so many articles being shared on Facebook about who is and who isn’t an Aspie that I can take. Then films like this come along and remind me that, as much as I like to think otherwise, some people still need serious education on the subject. This is Mommy.

The plot: Diane (Anne Dorval) is a single mother looking after her teenaged son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon), who suffers from ADHD. As his mood swings and outbursts grow more frantic and violent, Diane can only hope that she has the strength to help her son through it all. However, when support arrives in the form of their new neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément), maybe their bond may be enough to help them through it after all… I actively felt a piece of me die as I typed that, and you’ll see exactly why as we go on.

Might as well start out by addressing the most obvious element of the production: The aspect ratio. Most films released today are in 1.85:1 or 2.39:1 widescreen and, with the advent of widescreen TVs, films are no longer being cut down to letterbox format for home video release. I bring all this up because Xavier Dolan’s approach is… interesting. He filmed it in standard widescreen, then cut it down to 1:1 for release. It is presented as a moving picture portrait for about 95% of the film, because doing it normally would have been “extremely pretentious and incompatible” in the director’s own words. Basically, it was done to give a more intimate view of the events of the narrative and not simply to make it easier to watch it on an iPhone in portrait view. Now, to be fair, it is only distracting when first getting used to watching only the dead-centre of the screen and isn’t a major issue in that regard.

Where it is an issue is in how the effect is realized. Rather than being more humble and private as Dolan wanted, it instead feels like clinical examination; like a case study in family dynamics that I’m looking at for a psychology lecture. As a result, the emotional drama ends up falling more times than not because the decreased screen space makes everything happening feel way too distant to take in properly. The only time it works to the film’s advantage is a scene where Steve is being heckled while singing karaoke; then again, it’s because that scene is supposed to feel cold and harsh. Now, I did mention how it is like this for most of it, as there are two scenes where the ratio widens into natural widescreen. These are easily the best parts of the film visually, as the extra breathing room allows for better audience engagement as well as working decently as a thematic parallel to the other scenes. However, I’d say that is more damning than anything else, as these scenes work so well because they offer a break from the isolating framing. Not only that, they aren’t nearly fulfilling enough to make the rest of the over-two-hour running time feel worth it.

It may be rather cold to say that this film fails emotionally speaking, considering what is depicted, but I will try to bring some better perspective to the situation. A few short years ago, I pretty much was Steve: A violent and petulant little shit that, while kind and caring, was too emphatically emotional that it made day-to-day life a trial for both myself and those around me. I sympathize with his circumstances immensely… but I don’t sympathize with him. To me, his actions and his attitudes aren’t making me feel sorry for him because, outside of them and his love for pop music, he doesn’t have a personality of his own. He’s just a walking, talking spectrum diagnosis who only has his actions to speak for him and, when those actions are impulsively violent with very few acts of redemption, it is more difficult than it should be for me to commiserate. Then we get into how his condition is handled and… oh boy.

A few short months ago, my own tendencies in the real world got even more out of hand than they ever did previously. We’re talking police, ambulance, psych checks, overnight stay at the hospital for my own safety; all that fun stuff. Had I not been “advised” to step into that ambulance by those policemen, I probably wouldn’t be here to type this right now. What I am getting at with all this is that there are times when stricter actions have to be taken in the best interest of a person’s mental wellbeing. Here, Diane does everything possible to avoid a possibility where her son could be put into a psychiatric hospital because she want to help him herself. Then we get a scene where Steve openly slashes his wrists at a supermarket, in full view of everyone. Okay, no matter how slack the medical staff may be, it’s at around this point where anyone would agree that he needs professional help.

However, once Diane finally does just that, the film frames it as a betrayal and the worst thing she could do. True, the medical staff are a bit rough, but sometimes that approach is needed. It isn’t even the fact that this action is taken as a bad thing; it’s more that this possibility was never exercised earlier. Okay, making use of the film’s S-18 bill is a little much, but there are seriously no other medical steps taken to help Steve; he was just expected to recover on his own with his mother’s help. You want to talk dangerous thinking? Try a film that shows the same kind of “avoid the establishment” mentality that fuels most anti-vaxxer parents. I’m all for freedom of beliefs in all regards, but the line gets drawn when people are at serious risk of mental/physical harm by those beliefs. I’ve talked about films that deal very badly with mental disorders on this blog before, like with Love Is Now and Love The Coopers. Somehow, even with how much structurally better this film is, this is even worse than those two because this one actually took time to try and deliver pathos for said disorder. In the process, however, it ended up enforcing extremely hazardous methods that can only end up making things worse for the people involved.

All in all, even with its wonky and mishandled production ideas, like the aspect ratio and the rather ill-fitting soundtrack, there isn’t a whole lot to hate about the film structurally speaking. That said, this film’s stance when it comes to those with mental disorders and how they should be treated might be some of the most naively toxic I’ve come across in cinema in a very long time. This transcends simply being insensitive and goes straight into enforcing potentially dangerous behaviour; as someone who knows how much a film can influence a person’s worldview, I vehemently detest this film on that basis alone. This is worse than Aloha, as that film’s sentiments were only cloying rather than unsafely misguided. However, as quite a few of my own attitudes towards this film are about the treatment of the male lead, that means that I still formed a connection with him. That is far, far more than I can say for The Gallows, where the characters are so unlikeable that they could use a good roughing up.

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