Duke of Burgundy, 2014.
Directed by Peter Strickland.
Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen, Monica Swinn, Chiara D’Anna, Fatma Mohamed and Zita Kraszkó.
A relationship based around mistress and submissive begins to deteriorate as repetition begins to set in.
Peter Strickland is a filmmaker with the uncanny knack of being able to make films that draw from many influences but go off in a completely different, and unexpected, direction. His previous film, 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio, came at you with the pretence of being a giallo, coming from the same stable as the works of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and whilst it did indeed embrace many of the tropes of those filmmakers and set up a similar atmosphere it ended up being an unconventional but totally unique sensory experience.
The Duke of Burgundy employs a similar method of execution, opening with a simple scene of Evelyn (Berberian Sound Studio’s Chiara D’Anna) sat by a stream before riding her bicycle through a European-looking village to an undisclosed location. It says very little narratively but the tone is very much that of a jaunty European sex comedy along the lines of something by Tinto Brass, even down to the stylish opening credits. It sets up where we’re heading in a roundabout sort of way but art-house Euro-porn feels too easy a description when what the film is about is the ritualistic and repetitive nature of relationships, in this case the one between Evelyn and her lover Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen – Borgen). Cynthia plays the role of mistress, and every day Evelyn knocks on the front door and proceeds to do Cynthia’s bidding, cleaning her grand mansion and tending to her every whim, but as the days go by and the ritual barely changes it becomes clear that who or what seems to be the driving force in the relationship may not actually be as clear as we first think.
Much like Berberian Sound Studio’s talent for being a giallo without ever falling into any genre trappings, The Duke of Burgundy plays at being an erotic drama without ever feeling the need to be gratuitous or graphic. Being sensual rather than sexual – visually, at least – the film keeps its sex behind closed doors or, if it needs to be shown, does it in highly stylised fashion using soft focus lighting and plenty of shadow, which could have gone very wrong if Peter Strickland wasn’t so adept in making the exploitative subject matter of his films so non-exploitative.
Ultimately, The Duke of Burgundy is a film that you need to experience rather than just read about. The imagery of butterflies and moths – an interest of both Evelyn and Cynthia, as well as providing a metaphor for how their relationship is playing out – is prevalent throughout the film and provides a visual stimulus away from the surroundings of Cynthia’s plush mansion, although by the final act of the film it starts to feel like the metaphor is being pushed a little too much. Nevertheless, it all plays into the surreal and slightly dream-like state that Peter Strickland has created and doesn’t feel out-of-place, just a little too forceful.
Beautiful and complicated, The Duke of Burgundy is a film that deserves several viewings so you can explore and experience all it has to offer, and whilst its stylised and unstructured execution may not be for everyone, the themes that lie at its core are, making it a film we can all relate to in one way or another.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★