Director: Peter Strickland
Release Date: February 20th
Talk about a case of counter programming. After last week’s Fifty Shades of Grey mainstream take on BDSM, complete with an oddly hygienic little red room of horror, Peter Strickland’s follow up to his fantastic 2012 film Berberian Sound Studio offers quite a different take on its subject matter. Informed by the erotic exploitation films of the 70s by Spanish director Jess Franco than badly written Twilight fan fiction, The Duke of Burgundy takes this material to explore relationships and the power shifts that occur.
At the start of the film we see Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) working as a maid in a grand, ivy covered house owned by lepidopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen, best known as the Danish Prime Minister in the television series Borgen). At first it appears that Cynthia treats her maid upfront cruely, she dictates her assignments in a cold manner, and should Evelyn fail she punishes her through various means including, off-screen, urinating into her mouth. It becomes apparent however that Evelyn and Cynthia are actually in a committed relationship and that this kind of behaviour is actually the norm where they live, a remote village in a unnamed location entirely populated by women.
How this place came to population by women and how seemingly everyone there shares an interest in lepidoptery, the study of butterflies and moths remains unknown. Even its title, named after a type of butterfly, is never explicitly explained. There is a strange aura within this place, where mannequins are used to fill up seats during meetings and a neighbour who reacts emotionless to the cheerful greeting of both Evelyn and Cynthia. However, for all the mysteries and strangeness of the world he has created, Strickland is quite quick to bring a sense of normality to the proceedings. Strickland treats all his characters with respect and gives them a sense of dignity, which helps us understand them even if they live in a world that is clearly detached from any kind of reality.
The normality is explored through the underlining emotional relationship between Evelyn and Cynthia. Despite what we assume from the beginning, Evelyn is actually the master rather than the servant, dictating Cynthia’s actions through cue cards and taking more pleasure out of her humiliations than Cynthia has delivering them. In fact, as the film progresses, Cynthia starts to become more reluctant in participating in these games, especially after back pains force her to wear baggy pyjamas rather than tight corsets, much to Evelyn’s displeasure. The film balances out the erotic overtones of their relationship with a kind of domesticity as Cynthia begins to crave more sensuality and a move away from the fantasy games they play.
Strickland’s fusion of different forms of cinema, in this case the erotica of Franco’s films are meshed with art house sensibilities which hits its peak during a hallucinatory dream sequence where images of bondage climaxes with the screen being covered with moths, a reference to Stan Brakhage’s experimental short Mothlight, makes his film wonderful to look at. Added to the mix are some wonderful sound design and great whispery and dreamy soundtrack by Cat’s Eyes. Fortunately for all the film’s style there is substance underneath, and while the film’s take at passion, desire and companionship in relationships won’t be for everyone, it certainly is a fascinating take on its subject.