Although the BFI London Film Festival is now a distant memory, two of the feature films that I saw are still playing on my mind – The Duke of Burgundy directed by Peter Strickland and Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe. Whilst both films are directed by men, they differ greatly in the way the treat their female protagonists. (Spoiler alert: I will discuss key scenes in each film below).
I want to start with The Tribe as this was one of the festival’s most controversial and hotly anticipated films. I was drawn to this work intrigued by the premise of a feature length film that featured no dialogue or text and that centred on a deaf community. Ultimately I was left cold after seeing it. Clearly not a film backed by the Ukrainian Tourist Board, The Tribe is bleak and represents a view of a country that is lost, desperate and ugly.
Reviews that I have since read refer to the love and romance of the story. I refute this description, as this goes no way to probe what complicated and disagreeable emotion is being presented in the film. A deaf teenage boy joins a boarding school which is filled with the kind of corruption that comes as no surprise to a UK audience in the wake of recent scandals surrounding the abuse of the young in care homes by politicians and TV presenters. The proprietors of the school use the teenagers as thugs, thieves and in the case of the two female teenage characters, prostitutes. The main character is attracted to one of the prostituted girls. He shows this by paying her to have sex with him, by giving her the money to have an abortion, and when she rejects his advances he physically threatens her, he rapes her, and eventually he rips up her passport so she cannot leave him. This type of ‘love’ is the kind that sees two women each week killed by their partner/ex-partner in the UK, and I find it troubling to see it displayed on the screen and to not see criticism of this in discussion of the many provocative occurrences of the film.
In The Tribe the female characters are treated as commodities used by all of the male characters in a society where everything revolves around greed. There are several episodes in the film where the girls are taken out in the school caretaker’s van. At first as they excitedly change into their racy outfits in the back of the van you’d be forgiven for assuming they’d slipped out of the school and were heading out for a wild night of dancing. But no, these girls are escorted around a truck parking lot by one of the boys and are fucked by numerous truck drivers in the cabs of their trucks. All the while the girls appearing to be finding the episode jolly good fun. They offer no resistance; they appear to enjoy the experience. This might be a result of the fact that this is all they’ve ever known and they know no better, that this the only way they can survive, that they like what the money they make can buy them as much as anyone else in the film. But as there is no emotional depth to the characters it’s hard to see them as anything other than devices to highlight the corruption, greed and brutality of the male characters. After graphic scenes of rape and abortion there is no sense that the main female protagonist played by Yana Novikova has suffered; she springs back to her usual self and carries on as if it has never happened.
There are no consequences to the terrible events that occur in this film, and although I’m not looking for ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ at the end, it depresses me to witness this type of ‘misery porn’ portrayed on screen with two dimensional characters at the heart of it. Let’s stop normalising violence to women on screen.
In contrast, I went to see The Duke of Burgundy highly skeptical of how Peter Strickland was to portray a pair of ‘lesbian sub/dom lepidopterists’ and came away mightily impressed. The description of the film in itself sounds so sensationalist that I was almost prepared for something tacky on screen, imagining those meetings with male financiers where the director is trying to hook them in with this kinky, sexy angle. (Though knowing Strickland’s previous work I had a feeling he would take the subject and weave something fantastic from it). Strickland then said in the on stage Q&A that it had originally been a male/female relationship in its original incarnation but that it brought a whole other set of baggage with it.
The world of the Duke of Burgundy is sublime and sheltered with a nod to the beautiful settings of seventies Giallo films. From the grainy title sequence and dreamy music you know you are entering a world of fantasy and whimsy, so when the narrative starts to become a little weird, a little repetitive, it comes as no surprise. One of the best locations in the film is the lecture hall (who knows where this hall actually is, but does it matter?) where a group of well dressed women present lectures about lepidoptery to one another, and noticeably the audience has a few dressed up mannequins in its ranks – why? Who cares? It’s all part of the collective feminine fantasy that we’re drawn into.
Of course the critics reviews can’t help but touch on the depraved sex acts that occur or are hinted at, but really this isn’t what the film is about. It’s an inspired device to examine the universal theme of the power struggles that occur within relationships – trying to live up to the expectations of a partner whilst trying not to lose your sense of self or what you really want from the relationship. It’s just that in this case it is taken to an extreme to present something cinematically appealing and absurdly funny at times. In one scene the character known as The Carpenter innocently asks “would a human toilet be a suitable compromise?” to the excitement of Evelyn and the weariness of Cynthia.
We are presented with a palpable sense of how the characters feel, what drives them, and how genuine their feelings are for one another, helped by brilliant acting from Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna who have a convincing on screen chemistry. Strickland neatly aligns the viewers’ sympathies with Cynthia, the long suffering lover of a masochist. At first it appears that she is a bitch to Evelyn but it becomes apparent as the story evolves that this is how Evelyn wants to be treated and that Cynthia is only playing out the fantasies to keep her content. And very soon Cynthia’s vulnerabilities are revealed, we realise that these games are making her miserable, and that Evelyn dominates, even down to controlling the purse strings and buying the restrictive clothing that Cynthia wears.
With the Duke of Burgundy money is never the issue: the pair seem to be loaded and thus able to bask in their fantasies all day long. So unlike The Tribe it never feels that the interactions are influenced by finance, but that everything, no matter how disagreeable it might seem to one’s sensibilities, is done out of love. Though saying this there is a troubling sense that their relationship will continue as one-sided as it is ad infinitum. Again not a ‘happily ever after’ ending, but more truthful – Cynthia so passionately needs Evelyn that she will do whatever it takes to keep her partner content. The only time we truly see her frustrations surface is the scene where on Evelyn’s birthday Cynthia sets a new fantasy which sees Evelyn bake a cake which Cynthia then in slouchy pyjamas scoffs whilst resting her feet on Evelyn’s disgruntled face. Not the birthday fantasy she had been hoping for.
It’s complicated, it’s illogical and it’s emotionally rich, which serves to make it feel all the more human. You can’t help but be caught up in this curious world of these multi-faceted characters. Whereas with The Tribe the familiar attitudes portrayed that Eastern Europe, and in turn its people, are lawless, dangerous and desperate is tedious. And by making the characters deaf it feels like it’s adding another layer of exoticism – wow, deaf people can be bad people too, they are as able as any of us to be sadistic and greedy, who’d have thought it? I’m not convinced. Give me lush fantasy, tender emotion and intelligent women over violence, abuse and whoring any day.