Having made a splash with 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio, filmmaker Peter Strickland devises a story of similar obsessive devotions with The Duke of Burgundy, an erotic drama immersed in the kind of surrealism practiced by sex art-film forebears like Jean Rollin.
A study of the sadomasochistic relationship between two women, The Duke of Burgundy introduces viewers to the cloistered lives of Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) and Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), strange homebodies and bedfellows who role-play a series of lightly perverse games. Inside a decadent manor nestled somewhere in the middle of a European forest, Evelyn and her older significant other invent a number of sexual practices that seemingly play for laughs but conceal the serrated edge of aggression.
In a lushly disorienting fusion of image, sound, and narrative, Strickland’s film betrays the influences of everything from Rainer Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Jesús Franco’s Succubus and, particularly in its rustic, earthy imagery, Louis Malle’s Black Moon. Where such assorted points of references may have led to a case of too-many-cooks with other filmmakers, Strickland appropriates a blend so smooth, his visuals and motifs lavish upon the narrative like the slow, glossy drip of caramel. Indeed, there is an expert hand at work in cinematographer Nic Knowland, perhaps best known for his participation with the Brothers Quay in 1995’s Institute Benjamenta; he infuses Strickland’s work with diaphanous light and autumnal hues that place the two leads in an otherworld of fantasist desire.
The opening segment of the film establishes Evelyn as Cynthia’s submissive, scrubbing floors and hand-washing dirty underwear in a suds-filled basin. Evelyn’s insubordination leads to silly punishments, like having her open mouth placed under a running tap while she is laid flat on her back. It might have been an unshakably funny moment if it wasn’t for Strickland’s subtly baroque framing of faces and movements; sex scenes like this hang in the poignant balance of sadness and comedy, the filmmaker careful never to allow the moments of fetish to spill over into parody.
Meant to evoke the finely-detailed Monarch butterfly wings that feature prominently throughout the film, The Duke of Burgundy is an exquisitely wrought film, a throwback to the voguish, Euro-art softcore of the ‘70s. At times, however, this beauty is at the expense of character and drama. We never get a true sense of depth in the two leads, even in moments of tribulation. Evelyn and Cynthia are often mere variables in a story that pays undying respect to a kind of serenely lush beauty now antiquated in the string of today’s flashed-out spectacles. Often, they seem like prisoners in Strickland’s painterly void of sex and dissention, always framed by a tasteful display of impeccably arranged decor. Rarely does the relationship of these two women lift above their play-acting, and their more tense interactions resound with false alarm.
Strickland’s script implements some interesting ideas in the way of broadening the characters’ scope. There’s the strong suggestion of age-disparity romances here, in which both leading ladies encounter the burdens set upon them by the generation gap that separates them (Cynthia’s 50-something to Evelyn’s 30-something). Cynthia’s aches and pains (possibly arthritic) are offset by Evelyn’s more youthful designs of perverse and curious foreplay. Cynthia, as it is later revealed, really pines for simple companionship, and begins to tire of Evelyn’s insatiable and childish need for attention. Cynthia’s attempts at partaking in the simple enjoyments of everyday life (she suggests afternoon strolls and ice cream) are cordoned off by Evelyn’s selfish desire for her own sexual fulfillment; with the impatience of a spoiled high schooler, she rebuffs Cynthia’s requests for domestic living with complete indifference.
Meanwhile, Cynthia’s lepidopterology work (the study of moths and butterflies) provides a necessary distraction that fills her head with a sense of life existing outside the forced bonds of her relationship. When Evelyn’s duplicitous behaviour comes to Cynthia’s attention, the end is nigh for any hopes of true romance.
This romantic disintegration is perfectly realized at one point in a most striking shot of Cynthia’s open and exposed private region from which darkness blooms and spreads over the frame, denoting the sexual oblivion to which the two women have become victim. It’s an unsettling, chilling and knowing moment that reveals an audacious ingenuity on the director’s part. Such pressing issues of aging, loneliness, and self-doubt are rather unusual elements to feature in an erotic drama, but Strickland makes them work with gentle wonder; the eerie, esoteric flourishes that present the film at an angle of haunted persuasion reveal the designs of a filmmaker making serious strides in independent cinema. It’s only a shame that The Duke of Burgundy’s study in relationships could not have been developed further.
Shout! Factory’s release (which features both the DVD and Blu-ray discs) features an impeccable transfer that really captures the breathtaking visuals. Again, this is a combined effort of both Strickland and his cinematographer Knowland, and together they create optical magic, sometimes affecting an operatic flow, other times a scientific elegance of artful edits fashioned together with the fluid-quick cuts of colour and shape. The transfer is razor-crisp and water-clear, delivering the fresh and rich hues of golden honey, midnight blue, and tree-leaf green beautifully. The sound comes through clearly with no distortion and makes wondrous use of the band Cat’s Eyes’ music, a hypnotically swirling soundtrack that recalls the sweetly brooding laments of ‘70’s era folk-pop.
The release is packed with extras. Included is an informative commentary as well as an interview by the director. Deleted scenes, a still gallery, and trailer are also added to the supplements. The cherry on top is a short film entitled Conduct Phase.
The Duke of Burgundy doesn’t reach the tricky, anxious heights of Berberian Sound Studio, but it does secure Strickland as one of cinema’s most visually compelling storytellers, who create narratives with a perceptive eye for detailed and exhaustive beauty. The story may not grab you outright, but Strickland’s cabalistic images refuse to decay, like the perfectly preserved insect wings of which he’s so lovingly framed.