Title: The Duke Of Burgundy
Director: Peter Strickland
Major Players: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna
Out Of Five: Four
So the media was full of S&M last week – cable ties, rope, B&Q and all that – and we all know why. But Fifty Shades Of Grey isn’t the only S&M movie in town, because the other one arrives this week. It’s at fewer cinemas and isn’t likely to attract record breaking advance bookings – yet it’s the one that film lovers should be seeing.
I have to confess I’m finding it quite difficult to write about Peter Strickland’s The Duke Of Burgundy. That’s not because of its adult themes, or that it’s a bad film, but there’s so much going on visually and emotionally that I could just go wittering on – which wouldn’t make for a good read and would give away too much of the film. Metaphorical red pen at the ready ……
Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) share an interest in lepidoptery and entemology, attending lectures at the local institute. While it appears that Evelyn is Cynthia’s maid they are, in fact, closer and more intimate. But when the younger Evelyn can’t resist temptation and Cynthia starts to hanker after something more conventional, their relationship comes under strain.
At the outset, it appears that the ice cool Cynthia is in charge of the relationship, but appearances are deceptive and it’s soon apparent that, while Evelyn washes the lingerie, she also wears the trousers. She’s the inventive one, constantly looking for ways to add spice to their relationship and being very specific with her demands, to the point of scripting them and expecting Cynthia to follow them to the letter. Once we understand that, we’re shown some of the early scenes in the film again, so we can see them in a completely, more informed, light. Cynthia is always in an apparently dominant role, but all the scenarios are controlled by the younger woman.
And age is a real issue, certainly for the older Cynthia. Despite being elegant and attractive, her waist is thickening and it’s accentuated by the tight fitting skirts and corsets her partner buys for her. She has back trouble, snores when she sleeps and starts to long for a slightly more conventional relationship and some comfort. But Evelyn doesn’t like her pyjamas and has an incessant desire for stimulation and excitement. It makes Cynthia feel insecure and mistrustful.
The two occupy a strangely all female world. The audiences at the lectures they attend are all women, even down to the dummies occupying the empty seats (no, I don’t understand that either!). There aren’t any men in sight but, given this is a very stylised film in terms of its look and its dialogue, it shouldn’t come as any surprise. It is, in part, about artifice, after all.
So, if there’s no men, where does The Duke Of Burgundy come in? It’s a butterfly, a particularly rare one and Cynthia’s study has cases full of them at various stages of their development. And, while Strickland has said in interviews that the film would still have existed without the butterflies, it’s hard to imagine it without them and the metaphor they provide for the relationship between the two women. Plus, the film would have lost some of its most exquisite and striking cinematography – one scene in particular is stunning in its combined use of detailed camera work and the sound of beating wings.
Not all of the film works. In its later stages, Strickland ventures more into the abstract with strange, rather self-indulgent dream sequences. But there’s no denying the film’s fascination, both in terms of its depiction of the gradual disintegration of the relationship at its heart and its captivating look. Don’t expect to be titillated, though. There’s a certain coolness that increasingly rises to the surface, making you feel that you’re almost watching the two women through a microscope.
Rather like pinning a butterfly on card.
The Duke Of Burgundy is released in selected cinemas around the UK on Friday, 20 February.