Home > Reviews > THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY – Cat’s Eyes


dukeofburgundyOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Duke of Burgundy is a new erotic drama from the progressive British director Peter Strickland. The highbrow antidote to Fifty Shades of Grey, it tells the story of the sadomasochistic lesbian relationship between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a professor with a special interest in lepidoptery, and Evelyn (Chiara d’Anna), her maid and lover who slowly becomes her consensual sex slave. The title refers to the particular breed of butterfly with which Cynthia is fascinated, and acts as a metaphor for emergent female sexuality, while the entire look of the film is a loving homage to those European soft core movies of the 1960s and 1970s directed by the likes of Jess Franco, Tinto Brass and Just Jaeckin. Their films were shot in muted, earthy tones through misty, gossamer filters, and were serious and earnest and explicit in an unashamed way, celebrating sexuality in all its forms, and The Duke of Burgundy approaches things in a similar way. The film was screened at various film festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival, the London Film Festival, and the International Film Festival in Rotterdam, to generally positive critical reviews.

The score for The Duke of Burgundy is by Cat’s Eyes, an alternative pop duo formed in early 2011, comprising English musician and vocalist Faris Badwan, and Italian-Canadian soprano, composer and multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira. I’m often a little averse to indie scores written by pop groups moonlighting as film composers; more often than not, I have found scores like that to be little more than a series of simple instrumentals which don’t have the definition, intelligence or dramatic structure as scores written by composers more used to the genre. Fortunately, the score for The Duke of Burgundy is not like that at all – like the film, the score is a musical homage to the scores of those same sexploitation pics, which boasted unexpectedly sophisticated scores by composers like Pierre Bachelet, Francis Lai, Gert Wilden, Manfred Hübler and Bruno Nicolai. Those scores blended orchestras with catchy melodies, light pop and rock rhythms, lilting vocals, and dreamy montage sequences, and The Duke of Burgundy is cut from the same cloth.

The score is performed by a small string orchestra augmented by a number of instrumental soloists – clarinet, flute, harp, and a small brass section – plus guitars, and several vocal performances by Zeffira herself (the band’s usual vocalist, Badwan, said “The film is about a world without men, so I wasn’t allowed to do any singing.”) The score is bookended by two original songs, “The Duke of Burgundy” and “Coat of Arms,” both of which are performed with faraway lyricism by Zeffira, and a hint of renaissance era historical classicism via a harpsichord melody. Both songs are beautiful in an ethereal sort of way – I really, really like them.

Zeffira’s voice returns, with a beckoning come-hither siren song, in later cues such as “Pavane,” the gently orgasmic “Door No.2,” and “Evelyn’s Birthday”. Elsewhere, a few moments of musique concrète, with sampled sounds of nature, can be heard in “Forest Intro,” “Dr. Schuller,” “Silkworm” and “Night Crickets,” but for the rest of the time Badwan and Zeffira are content to stay within their intimate world of chamber music, presenting numerous cues of delicate beauty, introspection and tenderness.

The woodwind writing in “Moth” has a vague hint of Howard Shore about it. The harp and bass clarinet duet in “Door No.1” is mesmerizing. The interplay between the different sections of the string quartet in “Lamplight” is quite lovely, and is given a wistful, gauzy texture by the overlaid synths. The viola solo in “Reflection” is just sublime, while the flute version of “Evelyn’s Birthday” and the cor anglais version of “Black Madonna” drip with heightened erotic intimacy. It all sounds like honey for your aural senses, like music experienced through a satin veil.

Occasionally, some of the woodwind textures and precise rhythmic ideas remind me of Wojciech Kilar’s scores for his lesser known Polish dramas of the 1970s, or some of Ennio Morricone’s giallo scores, especially cues like “Carpenter’s Arrival” and “Hautbois,” which often combine operatic vocals with harpsichord chords and expressive oboe melodies to almost hypnotic effect. The longest cue on the album, “Requiem for The Duke of Burgundy,” intentionally channels the compositional stylistics of Mozart, and grows to truly beautiful heights over the course of its length, combining choral Latin lyrics performed in overlapping layers with precise rhythmic ideas and lush, ecclesiastical orchestrations.

One other interesting thing Badwan and Zeffira did on their score was to master it to make it sound ‘older’ – rather than the score having a crisp, modern sound, the music is intentionally altered to give it the slight imperfections, muffled sonics, and occasional pops and crackles one would hear on an LP from the 1960s or 70s. While this may drive audiophiles crazy, it nevertheless adds a sheen of project-specific authenticity to the score which is unique and appropriate. Perhaps the only major criticism I can make of the score is its lack of dramatic structure; with the exception of the variations on “Evelyn’s Birthday” and “Black Madonna,” there is virtually no other recurring thematic material in the score, and while I would typically consider this to be a drawback, in the case of The Duke of Burgundy, the music is so exquisite in its own right that it really doesn’t matter to me that much.

Under normal circumstances, The Duke of Burgundy is not a score I would go out of my way to review. The film is an arthouse slow burner, critically acclaimed but unlikely to pull much of an audience, while the score is by two composer/instrumentalists who most of my readers are unlikely to have even heard of, let alone considered purchasing music by. Nevertheless, something about this score got under my skin, tapped into the reflective and meditative part of my musical psyche, and impressed me greatly with its sensitivity, restraint, and quiet beauty. Anyone who knows and likes Morricone and Kilar’s European romance scores, or any of the soft-core erotica scores I mentioned earlier, will find much of this score to their liking, and those who don’t are urged to take a chance.

Buy the Duke of Burgundy soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Forest Intro (0:38)
  • The Duke of Burgundy (2:19)
  • Moth (1:29)
  • Door No. 1 (1:11)
  • Pavane (0:58)
  • Dr. Schuller (0:13)
  • Lamplight (2:48)
  • Door No. 2 (1:39)
  • Carpenter Arrival (3:33)
  • Reflection (1:43)
  • Door No. 3 (1:39)
  • Black Madonna (1:49)
  • Silkworm (0:18)
  • Evelyn’s Birthday (2:07)
  • Evelyn’s Birthday [Flute Version] (1:52)
  • Black Madonna [Cor Anglais Version] (1:21)
  • Night Crickets (0:20)
  • Requiem for The Duke of Burgundy (4:36)
  • Hautbois (2:10)
  • Coat of Arms (2:48)

Running Time: 35 minutes 32 seconds

Raf Records/Caroline Records 00602547189479 (2015)

Music composed by Cat’s Eyes. Conducted by Rachel Zeffira. Orchestrations by Rachel Zeffira. Recorded and mixed by Andrew Dudman and Steve Osborne. Album produced by Faris Badwan and Rachel Zeffira.

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