The third movie from British director Peter Strickland, The Duke of Burgundy is the eccentric yet humorous and visually rich story of the relationship between two women, set in an unnamed European country. Intentionally designed as a pastiche of 1970s Euro soft core dramas, the film stars Chiara D'Anna and Borgen's Sidse Bhabett Knudsen as, respectively, devoted maid Evelyn and cold, aloof lepidopterist Cynthia (a studier of butterflies and moths). With Evelyn seemingly the focus of much of Cynthia's ire, it's then revealed that their employee/employer status is actually an elaborate role-playing game, one that forms the basis of an intense romantic relationship. The Duke of Burgundy continues Strickland's fiercely singular vision and also further extends his love of genre filmmaking, following his exploration of the revenge drama (Katalin Varga) and the Italian giallo horror (Berberian Sound Studio). With two excellent lead performances and a dreamily expressive atmosphere, the film also features a wonderful pastiche score from musical duo Cat's Eyes.
Comprised of English musician Faris Badwan (best known as lead vocalist of rock band The Horrors) and Italian-Canadian soprano Rachel Zeffira, Cat's Eyes was formed in 2011. In April of that year, the duo released their first EP, Broken Glass, which subsequently led to their self-titled debut album. Well received, Mojo listed it as no. 13 on its list of the top 50 albums of 2011. The Cat's Eyes album was a notable infusion of different musical sensibilities, with Badwan bringing the indie rock vibe and the classically trained Zeffira performing a host of instruments including the oboe, cor anglais and vibraphone. Unsurprisingly, The Duke of Burgundy (their first film score) skews towards the latter sensibility.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, several esteemed composers put their musical stamp on Euro art house erotica, most famously Ennio Morricone with scores like Maddalena, Forza G and others. However, it wasn't exclusive to him – fellow Italians Piero Piccioni (Camille 2000) and Bruno Nicolai (Metti Una Cera a Cena), among others, also established a somewhat campy sound that fused the naff with the beautiful. Another composer in the same area was noted French singer-songwriter Pierre Bachelet, who composed several scores for the infamous soft core Emmanuelle series. It's entirely to the credit of Cat's Eyes that The Duke of Burgundy brilliantly evokes these oft-overlooked film scores. In fact on listening to the music, one could be forgiven for thinking that the likes of Morricone had indeed composed it. They've clearly done their research and it's resulted in one of the most striking film score debuts in some time.
The score actually opens with the sounds of water and birds, establishing the nature motif that runs throughout the film. This then leads into the first musical cue, the delightfully attractive song "The Duke of Burgundy" with its cooing vocal performance and lush accompaniment from the full orchestra. Woodwinds flutter, strings surge and a harpsichord keeps steady time beneath Zeffira's breathy vocals, which seem to be wistfully evoking memories of a fondly remembered romance. The music walks the line between the kitsch and the appealing, often serving dual functions at the same time. "Moth" continues in this delightfully expressive vein, cor anglais and strings fluttering around each other in lovely, delicate fashion. The first of the score's three "Door" cues then hints at something more melancholy and portentous, not dark necessarily, but foreboding certainly, grinding bass and bassoon hinting at the more complex, turbulent dynamics of Evelyn and Cynthia's relationship. "Pavane" reinstates the vocal work heard in the main theme, but this time in more distant, siren-like fashion without lyrics. It's atmospheric and intoxicating. The briefest of dialogue interludes in "Dr Schuller" then leads into "Lamplight", in which attractive strings give way to ethereal and distant choral work.
Celeste and vibraphone creates a hazy atmosphere in "Carpenter Arrival", in which Zeffira's vocal performance again seems to be enticing the listener to come closer. The harpsichord injection is another nicely decadent touch; its reputation as a popular Renaissance instrument also enhances the archaic yet oddly timeless feel of both the film and the score. "Reflection" is mournful in nature with its sad strings, tinkling xylophone and undulating vibraphone, as is "Black Madonna", although the latter features a prickly harp accompaniment lending more grace and beauty.
Another lyric-based vocal performance appears in "Evelyn's Birthday", mysterious and lusty with a haunting woodwind accompaniment (a second, flute-only variation of the track also appears on the album, as does a cor anglais-only variation of "Black Madonna"). "Requiem for the Duke of Burgundy" acts as an eerie climactic piece, a near-liturgical choir combining with the solemn strings and organ to create a sense of tragedy. The desolate, poignant yet lovely "Hautbois" features a stunning cor anglais solo with more from the tinkling harpsichord and undulating flute, before "Coat of Arms" finishes everything off with another sung performance from Zeffira, reinforcing the sense of a romance having come to a sad close. If one is to trace the score from the beginning to the end, one can better appreciate its intelligent construction and symmetry, a soundtrack that begins as a celebration of love and ends as a lament for something that's been lost.
In recent years, numerous pop artists have successfully entered the arena of film scores, from Daft Punk with Tron: Legacy to Mica Levi with Under the Skin and The The frontman Matt Johnson with British crime drama Hyena. The Duke of Burgundy stands proudly alongside those works: a skilfully atmospheric, beautiful and emotional score that honours an oft-overlooked era of film music whilst forging its own distinct identity. Cat's Eyes perform the same neat trick as director Peter Strickland, acknowledging the cheesy implications of the genre in which they're working whilst also injecting a great deal of heart and passion. It's an impressive debut, one that makes the next score from Cat's Eyes worth anticipating. The soundtrack album is available from the following links: Amazon.co.uk (on Vinyl!) and Amazon.com.