Submission, domination and control: Phil Kurthausen takes a look at this Spring’s unlikely cinematic theme played out in The Duke of Burgundy, Catch Me Daddy and Still Alice.
In the fecund surroundings of an isolated house somewhere unnamed and out of time in Europe, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen, Borge) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna, Berberian Sound Studio) play out a complex ritual of domination and submission in the lushly filmed, saturated colour of Director Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy.
We are drawn into an entirely female world where the dynamics of this supremely erotic, twisted and yet sweet relationship are bent back and forth by the quest for domination. On the surface this is played out in kinky role playing involving the cleaning of boots and lingerie with elaborate sexual punishments for any infraction. The real battle for control and submission is going on elsewhere though, down amongst the damp undergrowth where the bugs and grubs that appear so often throughout the movie live. This is a beautiful and witty film, supremely sexy and filmed in a way that will have movie buffs squirming in their seats with pleasure at the filmic references.
This dynamic, the struggle for control, the skirmishes, battles, victories and ultimate acceptance and surrender can also be seen manifested in intriguing ways in Still Alice and Catch Me Daddy, two other films with similarly strong female leads.
In Still Alice, Julianne Moore gives a nuanced and beautiful portrait of a linguistics professor diagnosed at 50 with early on-set Alzheimer’s. Alice is a realist and accepts that the disease will, by its natural progression, come to dominate her and subsume her personality. The tension lies in Alice’s attempt to assert control over the disease and its progression while she still can. Alice sets herself questions on her phone linked to instructions with what to do in the event that she can’t answer them. This is her construct of control, her refusal to submit to the disease. But like The Duke of Burgundy, what appears to be one form of control is actually only the surface drama. The touching scenes at the end of the film show us what’s left when the illusion of control is finally gone.
Catch me Daddy (Daniel and Matthew Wolfe’s debut feature) considers similar themes of submission and domination in a modern Western set in West Yorkshire. Laila (Sameena Jabeen Ahmed, streetcast for the film), is holed up in a caravan with her white Scottish boyfriend (Aaron Connor McCarron, star of 2010s Neds) smoking dope and listening to music. Their illusion of control is barely maintained by the use of codeine and music, (great use of Patti Smith’s Land here), whilst they await the arrival of two groups of thugs hired by her father.
Patriarchal and cultural dominance are seeking submission here and a violent cat and mouse chase begins that is only leavened by Robbie Ryan’s beautiful cinematography making the Yorkshire moors and industrial mill towns a spectrally striking backdrop for the prowling viciousness to come.
Control; it may be an illusion, but when it’s dealt with as truthfully and with such great female lead performances as this, it can certainly be a beautiful one.
Book tickets for Still Alice and Catch Me Daddy, both currently showing at FACT.