The Duke Of Burgundy
UK (2015) Dir. Peter Strickland
The mark of a good filmmaker is often revealed in their versatility and range of styles, themes and genres they tackle. British director Peter Strickland is only three films into his career yet they are all distinctly different. Following his debut, the rural Romanian set Katalin Varga and the unsettling Gaillo homage Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland turns his hand to a steamy world of sadomasochism.
Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) is a young woman who every day shows up to do domestic chores for the older Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), under whom she is studying lepidopterology (the study of moths and butterflies). If Evelyn doesn’t perform her duties to Cynthia’s satisfaction then she is subject to unusual punishment.
A threadbare sounding plot but the story has a lot more to offer but to discuss them any further is to ruin it for anyone who wants to remain surprised. The twist, as such as it is, appears roughly twenty-five minutes into the film which sounds ridiculously early but plays an important part in the development of the relationship. It is also central to our understanding of the characters which admittedly is rather oblique at times.
It should be noted that this film is not explicit in anyway, with no nudity or anything graphic explored despite the submissive/dominatrix dichotomy being the driving theme. The kinkiest display would be Cynthia in her lingerie and basques and some tame fumbling in bed but the tone overall is sensuous and (dare I even suggest?) rather tender under the circumstances
The Duke Of Burgundy – named after a butterfly – is more of a psychological exploration into the sub-dom relationship, a possible modern day descendent of Bergman’s Persona in terms of its oneiric teasing of fantasy and reality. Strickland has said his film is a homage to Spanish director Jess Franco, of whom I know little about so I’ll leave it to fans of Franco to discern any present visual tributes.
Tone and style wise this is closer to Berberian Sound Studio than Katalin Varga although inflections of the latter’s rural setting can be found here in the quiet country village the film is set. The green fields, swaying trees and quaint architecture give off a central European vibe, while the fashion and humble technology – which includes travel methods limited to just the bicycle – would date this in the 1970’s (something the opening credits strongly allude to).
Most significant about this beguiling locale is that there is not a man in sight, with even the “traditional” (for wanting a better term) male roles fulfilled by women, such as a carpenter (played here by Fatma Mohamed). This immediately does away with any notion that a relationship between two females is deviant, kinky or forbidden (although it does raise the question of reproduction) sold such a thing occur within the viewer.
So how does the story expand beyond its core premise? It seems Strickland is looking at the emotional casualties such a fetish as S&M might incur beyond the obvious strain it can put on a relationship. Our kinky couple enact the same routine on a daily basis, which one soon begins to tire so the other looks to ways to spice things up a bit. Being more adventurous and curious as to boundaries of pleasure to be garnered from such activities becomes a one way street and the simple love between two people threatens to ebb away.
It may seem peculiar to many of us but the idea here is that it is the punishment meted out is in fact a sign of affection, as in “if you love me, you’ll lock me in this chest all night long”. Similarly Cynthia seems to misjudge Evelyn’s level of abuse on her birthday where her present is to make her own birthday cake then act as a footrest while Cynthia eats it herself, which didn’t go down so well with Evelyn.
Amazingly, Evelyn wanted a bed with a slide out chamber for her to sleep in underneath Cynthia but it would have taken too long to make; the carpenter’s next suggestion of a “human toilet” lifts the disappointment for Evelyn. We may get some amusement out of such an outlandish suggestion but this is the extent of any “perversion” to be found here, suggesting exploitation and ridicule is not the intent.
At its heart this is a tale of a relationship going through a stagnant phase and attempts to liven it up are one sided but Strickland has an ingrained arthouse/experimental streak running through him, making his esoteric presentation a distraction for many. In between the story, we are treated to some dreamlike sequences and a montage of various butterflies and moths; if they are symbolic and relevant to the plot it is lost on an idiot like me.
Everything is exquisitely photographed and Strickland’s keen eye for curious composition shines through with some of the luscious set ups the cast are featured in. The ladies themselves are shot in every way possible yet are never objectified. For the sexually charged scenes the remit is sensual and tasteful but Strickland adds layers of effects for bonus whimsy and a sense of erotic charge.
For Sidse Babett Knudsen, who is now known globally, this could have been a risky role to take but she proves to be an obvious perfect choice. Her straight English accent is remarkably sexy, matching her stoic appearance as Cynthia, the slowly unravelling dominatrix. Unlike Knudsen Chiara D’Anna (and the other women, all European) retains her native accent, which serves to make Evelyn all the more charming and vulnerable. Their chemistry is believably sensuous and at times deliriously romantic.
The Duke Of Burgundy has a lot of elements that may baffle and obfuscate but its boldness, inventiveness and visual lyricism is too rich to ignore. A hallucinogenic trip it may be but a pseudo-erotic sensitive one that leaves a lasting, haunting impression.