Nothing to do with Ron.
The latest cinematic headscratcher from Peter Strickland (Katalin Varga, Berberian Sound Studio) isn’t named after an actual person – there are literally no male characters, let alone landed gentry – but a butterfly. It’s a typically esoteric move from a director not given to easy answers or, indeed, easy questions (except, perhaps, WTF?).
An elliptical tale of lepidopterist lesbians, Duke takes its cues from the vampish ’60s/’70s erotica of Spanish director Jess Franco, but easily transcends the genre to become something bracingly original and unique. The plot, for want of a better word, is stark. Innocent Cynthia (Chiara D’Anna) appears at a mansion belonging to schoolmarmish Evelyn (Sidse Babett Knudsen), and becomes her maid, performing demeaning tasks such as rubbing her feet, and providing an unconventional vessel for her urine.
As in Franco’s work, there’s cheesy music, stilted line readings and much softcore opulence. But it’s ‘porn’ the way Berberian Sound Studio was ‘horror’. Evelyn and Cynthia’s couplings are ponderous and unsexy; we may as well be watching insects under a microscope, as Evelyn does for the bewildering butterfly lectures she conducts to all-female groups of insect fanciers.
All, it’s fair to say, is not as it seems. Yet amid the spiralling weirdness, Strickland has something genuine and affecting to say about the power games lovers play with each other. Far from giving the viewer an easy ride, he chucks an array of alienation techniques into the mix: atonal insect mating cries fill the soundtrack, toilet humour and dream sequences pop up unannounced. The end result can frustrate – more often, though, it transfixes.
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