Last Tango in Paris, Duke of Burgundy, Make Fifty Shades Look Like Junk
“Go Get the Butter”
The zeitgeist took a sharp turn to the kinky this past Valentine’s Week. The release of Fifty Shades of Grey with its self-aware, jejune philosophy and wooden acting started a conversation about BDSM. Find that sexy or not, sex was on everyone’s mind. What delights would it reveal, what outrages? Maybe a few new imaginative ways of thinking about your lover?
The film, the first of a three part franchise is so atrocious and fake that people exiting theatres around the world slumped a little, deeply disappointed and robbed of cinematic pleasures and new ideas they may have anticipated. They wanted so much more. It failed so hard for them while Universal netted $90M. Curiosity money down the drain.
Got me thinking about sex “event” films over the years, the controversial features that have illuminated, shocked and rocked us to the core. Films made with intelligence, passion and at least a soupcon of understanding of human psychology that inspired howls of protest and were so worth it.
So I dragged out the incendiary Last Tango in Paris to watch it for the first time since its theatrical release. I was an impressionable young thing and it was mind-bending. It was never shown in its entirety in Canada, and was banned in many countries. And wow, there was Marlon Brando in his devastating animal prime and Maria Schneider, a dazzling 19 year old “discovery”. The story was tragic but the journey was riveting, and I discovered that Bernardo Bertolucci’s provocative foray into sado masochism is as fresh today as it was in 1973.
Brando’s Paul is an American expat in Paris, agonising over the suicide of his wife attempting to exorcize the pain by manhandling a young girl. In an empty apartment, they experience an anonymous sexual encounter, a wordless, animal and violent episode that was also liberating and exhilarating.
But what makes it work is it is grounded in real life. It’s a story and a character study with a strong philosophical framework and people that are recognisably human. Factor in superb filmmaking, saturated sensual natural light and cinematography and it clobbers Fifty Shades.
And now, Duke of Burgundy, a gorgeous, intellectual and sensual think piece about the BDSM relationship between two women again illustrates how powerful a film about sex can be. The time and place are never stated but it seems to be Europe in the 70’s or 80’s, and takes place in a rural mansion where butterflies and moths are lovingly stuck through the heart and into the walls.
The bigger, demanding half of the pair is an entomologist who lectures groups of like-minded women and a few mannequins. The seemingly frail one is in the audience rapt, watching her love, enchanted. They arrive at home and enter into a routine of ritualised sex with light overtures of sado-masochism that is on permanent repeat.
It soon becomes clear that we had them confused. The big one is taking orders from the sly, cunning small one. Their routines are deeply enmeshed in every waking moment. The big one drinks endless glasses of water to settle her nerves because she is constantly observed and judged.
Then there is the problem concerning delivery of the Trap Bed, a mysterious business transaction fraught with tension. The saleswoman suggests the Human Toilet instead and leaves to await their decision. The lovers won’t be put off, something has to give. So it’s on to the Trunk; someone’s being locked in. As outrageous their world, the characters are still completely recognisable as intelligent, feeling beings.
Duke of Burgundy is as psychologically and emotionally overwhelming as it is eccentric. We come to understand that the repetition is what the characters crave, the solidification and endless proof of their desire and need for one another.
So, in closing, Last Tango in Paris – 10, Duke of Burgundy -10, Shades – 0.