Film in Oxford: Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ and Sexual Otherness

Attentive audioviewers will not have heard any quotations of classical music in The Duke of Burgundy, Peter Strickland’s chimerical new film, but this was not the director’s original intention. In an interview with Indiewire, Strickland revealed that he had in fact been using, Kubrick-like, Mozart’s Requiem in D minor (K. 626) as a temp track, with the intent of including the work in the final film. Indeed, Strickland went so far as to call the piece a ‘painfully obvious’ choice. The director’s pain, as it turned out, was too great. Instead he opted for the music of alternative pop duo Cat’s Eyes, consisting of The Horrors’ Faris Badwan and classically trained composer Rachel Zeffira. Reportedly introduced to the director, already a devout fan, by fellow Reading-born artist Chris Cunningham, Zeffira and Badwan composed and orchestrated twenty cues to populate The Duke of Burgundy’s soundtrack.

Sifting through interviews and press releases, it is clear that the musical points of reference and impetuses for The Duke of Burgundy are wide-ranging and manifold. The compositions name-checked include the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone and John Barry, songs by Basil Kirchin and Harry Nilsson, Hungarian lullabies, and Cat’s Eyes’ own work, in addition to the aforementioned classical music. Writing in the film’s press notes, Strickland states that ‘sometimes I get too hooked on the temp track music, in future I’d like to get people to do soundtracks before I even start writing.’ Elsewhere he expressed mild concern, asserting that the film shouldn’t be a showcase for his personal record collection, however well-thumbed and vast it might be.

For his 2009 debut feature, Katalin Varga, Strickland used recordings by The Sonic Catering Band, an electronic group he had established with friends in the mid-1990s, whose modus operandi involves recording the noises of food preparation and cooking. For Berberian Sound Studio, his sophomore venture three years later, Luciano Berio’s 1961 work Visage was an acknowledged influence, partly as a nod to Kubrick’s deployment of avant-gardist Krzysztof Penderecki. Last year, Strickland moved even further into the musical realm, serving as co-director for the concert film Björk: Biophilia Live.

Contextualised as such, the musical soundscape of The Duke of Burgundy, woven through with melodies for frequently wordless soprano, cor anglais, flute, and horn, accompanied by electric organ, harp, or harpsichord, marks it out as something of an about-turn for the director. Alongside the Mozart quotation, Strickland revealed that Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was played on set, including during a scene when entomologically enthused group women study the noises of crickets, relayed through records.

Working in a ‘blank’ style, not dissimilar to that of recent American Smart cinema, or Peter Greenaway’s 1980s work, but without any postmodern playfulness or acrid archness, the film eludes simple summation as pastiche or parody. Nevertheless, Strickland’s desire to use a quotation of Mozart’s Requiem was so strong that Zeffira promptly produced her own setting of the prefatory Introitus (‘Requiem Aeternam’). On the original soundtrack release by Milan Records, this is listed as the eighteenth track, ‘Requiem for the Duke of Burgundy’.

Strickland has also stated that Mozart’s Requiem was an ‘obvious marker’ for him, but it is unclear what he means here. A marker of earlier cinematic appropriation? Of time? Of the state of the film’s central relationship, in a proto-programmatic sense? ‘Requiem for The Duke of Burgundy’ occurs at a structurally weighted moment towards the end of the film, when Cynthia gives a presentation at the town hall, and continues as she and her partner are shown closing up shop just before the final scene.

Yet, the work’s use at the hands of previous, and contemporaneous, directors is more interesting, and perhaps what Strickland is alluding to here. For Theorem (1968), Pier Paolo Pasolini, alongside Morricone’s mercurially modernist score, and Ted Curson’s ‘Tears for Dolphy’, used three movements of the Requiem to mark the effects of a visitation by Terence Stamp’s diabolical interloper upon a Milanese bourgeois nuclear family and their subsequent change in sense of self. The opening Introitus, in particular, dominates Pasolini’s film. The movement is heard as two cycles, once before the guest leaves and again across the second half of the film, after he has left, as we witness the psychosexual fires he sets ablaze. Each volte-face performed by a family member – the son and father’s respective abandonment of their oil brushes and factory (plus clothes), the daughter’s crumbling to catatonia, and the mother’s repudiation of her ‘chaste bourgeois reputation’ – is accompanied by the setting of the Requiem Aeternam, with which the film ultimately concludes.

Such formalist structuring through Mozart also occurs in Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers (1987), vis-à-vis the second movement of the Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat (k. 364). Rather than a film of two halves, Greenaway’s matricidal movie has the three generations of Cissie Colpitts mourn the aquatic asphyxiation of their husbands to Mozart’s nondiegetic music. Yet there is a further thematic connection, one so far not highlighted by critics. The young boy, Smut, is a keen entomologist, and the walls of his bedroom are covered in lepidopterae, much like the mise-en-scène of The Duke of Burgundy.

More recently still, in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (Vol. II), Joe, at the nadir of her socially shameful sex addiction, in another symbolic use of mise-en-scène, is advised to cover up any object in her room that provides an erotic stimulus. This task she duly carries out to the strains of the Requiem Aeternam, specifically its opening phrase. Afterwards she collapses on her virgin-white bed, exhausted, in a shot, that, coupled with the underscoring of Mozart, seems to act as a pointed reference to the scene involving the daughter in Theorem. In his earlier film Breaking the Waves, von Trier had examined similar ground, as protagonist Bess’s beatific ascension, having offered herself up as sexual salve, is marked with a change in musical register from ‘70s hard rock to Bach.

In each of these cases, classical music, specifically Mozart’s Requiem, is used to signify sexual otherness, be it active female sexuality in von Trier’s films, or nonheteronormative entwinings in Theorem and The Duke of Burgundy. But these pieces of classical music also do narrative work, tracing repetitions in the case of Theorem and Drowning by Numbers. Coupled with their subjects’ change in sexual status with respect to social norms, the music dwells in these liminal moments of becoming. Likewise in Strickland’s film, the daily repetition of Cynthia and Evelyn’s role-play begins to takes its toll on the partnership, leading to a crisis in the women’s interpersonal and sexual relationship, and threatening their apparently cozy domesticity.

It is perhaps in this sense that Mozart’s work was an obvious choice for Strickland to mark this important moment, drawing on this stylistic trope of art cinema, much as the male gaze of Euro-exploitation cinema is visually re-appropriated and worn with quotation marks. Nevertheless, the Requiem can still be felt running millimeters below the skin of Cat’s Eyes’ original composition, in the same manner that, whilst the women’s most private acts occur behind closed doors, away from the eyes of the prying voyeur, they are still patently audible.

D. Knight

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