The Duke Of Burgundy unfolds like writer-director Peter Strickland’s half-remembered dream of some lost bit of softcore Eurotica, like something he stayed up late watching, with the volume turned low, while his parents were asleep in the next room. Its real kinkiness is only evident in retrospect. Here’s a movie about intense sexual desire that contains no nudity, no profanity, and only one brief eruption of orgasmic moaning. It’s set in a luxe world populated entirely by women, operating in an economy rooted in their relative knowledge of butterflies. Based on its surface textures alone—both visual and sonic—The Duke Of Burgundy could pass as a dreamy children’s fantasy or a period horror picture. This is a film that seems to exist beyond time, place, or genre.
A big reason for that is the score. The band Cat’s Eyes—made up of The Horrors frontman Faris Badwan and classically trained Canadian opera singer Rachel Zeffira—constructed a soundtrack for The Duke Of Burgundy as betwixt and between as the rest of the picture. The opening credits are set to a gentle, airy song that sounds like it was swiped wholesale from a late 1960s soda commercial. The music, coupled with the credits for perfume, lingerie, and entomology, suggests something much cutesier than this film actually turns out to be.
Then Strickland introduces his dual protagonists: a poised aristocrat named Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her demanding, kinky lover Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). As the story gradually establishes that the “sadist” in this relationship isn’t enjoying their sex games as much as the masochist, Cat’s Eyes’ music becomes more abstract and atonal, and is frequently obscured/enhanced by the deafening sound of insects in the surrounding wilderness.
Strickland does a lot with Cat’s Eyes’ score and with the sound design in general. Sometimes the music just works in conjunction with the lyrical impressionism of the imagery, as in a scene where Evelyn hand-washes Cynthia’s delicates, entranced by the colorful fabrics and soap bubbles…
…and sometimes the soundtrack devolves into synthesized throb and noise, as in an abstract interlude that pays homage to Stan Brakhage’s seminal avant-garde short “Mothlight.”
On the Shout! Factory Duke Of Burgundy DVD/Blu-ray set, Strickland says he was drawn to Cat’s Eyes because of the strong strains of girl-group rock and sunshine pop in their songs. The duo’s self-titled 2011 LP (and their EP from that same year, Broken Glass) reveal a hodgepodge of influences, from the proto-shoegaze of Cocteau Twins to the gutter-punk of The Cramps. Badwan has frequently nodded to British producer Joe Meek, who combined a fascination with old-fashioned folk music with a willingness to experiment with electronic instruments, forging a one-of-a-kind career. Like Meek, Badwan insists he doesn’t have much talent as an instrumentalist, saying, “Sound is the way I’ve always expressed myself because I can’t play very well. So it’s more about taste.”
That quote comes from an interview that Dazed did with Badwan and Zeffira about The Duke Of Burgundy soundtrack. In it, Badwan says that he appreciated how Strickland encouraged them to start with something lovely and then scar it up. “It seems quite bluntly clumsy to do a song that’s completely one way,” he says. “You get bored.” To which Zeffira adds, “That’s why I think classical composers use of lot of dissonance: ugly becomes beautiful.”
Zeffira also says Strickland gave them loose guidelines for what to shoot for. “He wanted melancholy oboe, and harpsichord and some flute. And he did refer to some soundtracks he really likes… stuff like John Barry.” On the Blu-ray, Strickland says he pointed them specifically to the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, which mixes Barry’s cinematic, melodic soundscapes with psychedelic rock and hooky Top 40 numbers like Harry Nilsson’s cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.” The most important instruction was that the music not be ironic. For Strickland, the major appeal of Cat’s Eyes is that they take the sound of bands like The Carpenters and The Ronettes seriously. “They were the first band I heard that logically [built on] that Carpenters melancholy,” he says.
And yet as great as The Duke Of Burgundy’s score is, it stands zero chance of landing an Oscar nomination. First off, it’s weird, and often dissonant—not the kind of thing an Academy member would be inclined to play in their car on the way to work. But more importantly (and, frankly, damningly), The Duke Of Burgundy just isn’t well-known enough.
Some offbeat scores have been nominated for Oscars, and have even won in recent years. William Butler and Owen Pallett’s Her music got a nod, and Trent Reznor took home a statuette for his collaboration with Atticus Ross on The Social Network. But those were “Oscar movies,” with publicists vociferously campaigning on their behalf. Look down the list of nominees for the last decade, and by and large, both the films and their composers are well known. It’s like the music branch withholds all nominations until they hear the latest from Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat, John Williams, James Horner, Alberto Iglesias, and Michael Giacchino.
Frankly, there’s too limited an idea of what makes a great score. Those composers are all excellent (and worthy of their awards, don’t misunderstand), but more often than not, they deliver what’s expected, in movies that are fairly polished. There’s no hope for a true wildcard like Ariel Pink and Paul Grimstad’s score for Ben and Joshua Safdie’s raw indie Heaven Knows What, where the jagged electronic textures transform the entire tone of the Safdies’ docu-realistic study of addiction.
And that’s a shame, because independent films are so often a case study in how music can alter perception. Most indies rely too much on a few costly pop songs, with wan, nondescript acoustic picking and plunking to fill in any gaps. But there are so many good local bands and young composers who directors could tap for very little money, and who could make a film sound as distinctive as it looks. That kind of creative thinking should be rewarded—or at least encouraged, if only to spare those of us who watch a lot of low-budget American dramas from having to suffer through another dull, tuneless guitar-and-piano soundtrack.
It’s not that a score has to be obtrusive, the way that the one in Heaven Knows What is. After the opening song, Cat’s Eyes’ music just becomes a part of The Duke Of Burgundy’s overall mesmerizing spell. But given the obvious thought that Strickland put in to finding his preposterously oversized Hungarian country manse, and commissioning elegant retro outfits for his cast, and making sure that the dappled lighting and antique furniture were just so, it would’ve been auteur malpractice for him to drop just any old music into the background. Cat’s Eyes’ score, then, is his sublime finishing touch, underlining what this movie is. The Duke Of Burgundy is revealing but not explicit, as Strickland and his musical collaborators explore how ritualistic patterns both express and stifle deeper emotional connections.