Film: The Duke of Burgundy
Director: Peter Strickland
Primary Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna
US Release Date: 23 January 2015
The Duke of Burgundy
Evelyn (D’Anna) and Cynthia (Knudsen) are two lepidopterists living somewhere in Europe sometime in the past. There are no men in their corner of the world, and just about everyone seems to spend most of their time thinking about moths and butterflies.
The film opens with Evelyn arriving at a beautiful home, which belongs to Cynthia. Cynthia (who is older than Evelyn) scolds her for arriving late and instructs her to begin cleaning. Over the course of the day, Evelyn completes a variety of chores, and Cynthia is noticeably cold toward her whenever she brings a progress report. Cynthia’s final chore is to hand-wash Cynthia’s underwear. She does so, but not to Cynthia’s liking, and she is “punished” as a result.
Over the course of the film, these events are repeated multiple times and in various ways. Cynthia and Evelyn are a couple, and they frequently engage in sadomasochistic acts and role play. That said, there is much more to their relationship than the film’s initial sequence would indicate, and the majority of Cynthia’s dominance is actually orchestrated by the sexually submissive Evelyn.
Written and Directed by Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio), The Duke of Burgundy is a lavish and hypnotic film that transports viewers into its timeless and mesmerizing world. At times strange and even a little unsettling, The Duke of Burgundy also tells a love story that is more or less familiar at the end of the day. The film is not nearly as smutty or as interested in sex as its opening sequence—which ends with Cynthia urinating into Evelyn’s mouth—would indicate, and it is far more tender than some of the interactions between its main characters might suggest. On top of that, it’s also a well-acted film, and the atmosphere that Strickland creates is a thing of beauty.
The world of The Duke of Burgundy exists somewhere between fantasy and reality and in a time and place that never quite existed. As I sit trying to review the film, I feel that I can’t quite get a grasp on it. The story that it tells is not that hard to make sense of, but the manner in which it is told acts like a sort of haze. Time is not linear in The Duke of Burgundy, and the film’s frequent use of tangled repetition makes the entire thing feel like a dream. Some of Strickland’s visual choices (such as the inclusion of mannequins in a lecture audience) also push the film toward the realm of the surreal. The result of all of this is a film that has a very distinctive feel to it—it’s alluring even when it’s abstruse, and it takes viewers into itself quite forcefully.
In addition to the wonderful atmosphere that Strickland creates, The Duke of Burgundy also provides viewers with a pair of beautiful performances. Knudsen (who I recently encountered in After the Wedding) is fantastic here, and she and D’Anna both bring a great deal of emotional and psychological nuance to their respective characters. Both performances accomplish a great deal through subtlety, and they elevate the film well beyond the world of the ordinary as they do so.
Since certain scenes and events are depicted more than once and in a number of varying ways, The Duke of Burgundy could have become dull in the hands of another director or lesser actresses. Instead, the film is captivating throughout, and viewers are constantly learning more and more about Evelyn and Cynthia. Even though it features a couple who spend the majority of their time engaged in sexual role play, and even though one of its main characters has a number of taboo fetishes, Strickland’s film is not really that interested in sex. The fact that it doesn’t contain any explicit nudity is one clue to this fact; the great deal of attention that it devotes to its characters is another.
The Duke of Burgundy is a fascinating film about love and about control and communication between those who are in love. As odd as it appears at times, the experiences that it is the most interested in are not hard to understand. Sadomasochism aside, The Duke of Burgundy is really about how two people with different desires can make things work and about how those with different needs can find a way to satisfy both themselves and each other. It’s also about a couple who are trying to rediscover the spark that brought them together. That it’s presented in an edgy way does not diminish the emotion or the romantic nature of the film’s story—if anything, it increases their impact by making the entire film much more memorable.
The Duke of Burgundy is a compelling character study that is far more creative and inspired than it is pornographic. The lush and dreamlike film provides a unique viewing experience without sacrificing emotional depth, and I look forward to seeing what Strickland does next.
Watch The Duke of Burgundy now.
Until Next Time
It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I was repeatedly reminded of Persona while watching this film. Whether this means much at all, remains to be determined. Either way, thank you so much for reading. As always, feel free to leave me a comment if you have anything you’d like to ask or add. You can also keep up with me and my film-viewing by following this blog on twitter.
p.s. I finally saw Steve Jobs a few days ago, so I’ll try to get something up about that soon.