The Duke of Burgundy, 2014.
Directed by Peter Strickland.
Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, Fatma Mohamed, Eugenia Caruso and Monica Swinn.
Peter Strickland is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most exceptional filmmakers currently around. His previous two works Katalin Varga and Berberian Sound Studio took on vastly different subject areas and genre tropes and succeeded in bringing an individual flair and passion for the dreamlike straight to the screen.
The first was a revenge thriller set in the heartland of Romania and the other a psychological unpicking of an individual located within a tribute to the creation of the giallo films of Italian cinema. Together, these two striking films share a platform of wilful artistry and a capability to constantly impress and ask serious questions of the audience.
The Duke of Burgundy once again shows off Strickland’s uncanny ability to go beyond the expected. Taking its starting point in the soft-focus daze of the world of art-house pornographic features and a mixing of the kind of vantage points favoured in Hammer and Amicus productions of the 60’s and 70’s, it’s clear right from the opening sequence that we’re in for a unique experience.
And it could well be a surprising experience for many. For despite cursory appearances, this is not really a film about sex, porn or exploitation at all.
In fact, the detailing of Cynthia (Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn’s (D’Anna) ailing relationship is more concerned with the internal dynamics than the outward displays of S and M adventurism. Sex scenes are either dryly humorous or tender shows of affection and the main thing that comes across in the dramatic telling of the relationship is how honestly it is portrayed.
Most of the truly graphic stuff is shown off screen aided by a few choice (erm running waterworks, anyone?) sound effects. The real joy of the film is in the little shows of amusing weirdness, crossing between a form of dark humour and the surreal. From Evelyn’s lit up eyes at the mention of a ‘human toilet’, to the phantasmagoric world seemingly located between Cynthia’s thighs, this is a dramatic world that we are being admitted to without any rudimentary guidebook.
Focusing on the two lovers’ attempts to keep their spark of passion alive through sex-play and dominant and submissive role play, The Duke of Burgundy is a film that does not explain, hint or evaluate. It allows the experience of these two women to wander across the screen without traditional signposts or signifiers. As with the emotional life of everyone, there is no traditional beginning or end, just a series of scenes and memories from a life that gets played out in various different ways.
The setting for these two lives largely switches between Cynthia’s house – or is it Evelyn’s? – of fading glamour deep in some rural forest, and an unnamed institution hosting lectures on the study of butterflies. Cynthia is an amateur lepidopterist – that’s a butterfly expert to you and me – who regularly attends the lectures. Amongst the rows of seats of people listening to the lectures there are on closer inspection a couple of motionless dummies. What Strickland intends with this is anyone’s guess, but it lends an air of the fantastic to the whole.
Strickland clearly understands more than most that it is what is going on just outside the scene that brings power and depth to the whole picture. When Cynthia and Evelyn argue about Evelyn’s possible infidelity with a local woman it is clear that there is a whole other series of fragments which we have not been allowed into. When you add the fact that more or less everything can be part of a game, you are left with the ambiguities and mysteries of real life. The alternately melancholic and romantic arrangements and compositions provided by the musical duo Cat’s Eyes beautifully contribute to this overall haunting and esoteric impression.
It is only after the credits roll that it becomes clear that the world we have just witnessed is a world entirely without men, and as such the film takes on even further routes of expression. Just as the house cat watching the two will testify, the film wonderfully gets across just how rich the world behind our eyes really is…
It will be more than interesting to see which avenue Strickland will go down next…
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert W Monk is a freelance journalist and film writer.