Directed by: Peter Strickland.
Written by: Peter Strickland.
Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen (Cynthia), Chiara D'Anna (Evelyn), Fatma Mohamed (The Carpenter).
The opening credits of The Duke of Burgundy are a tease – promising a movie that writer/director Peter Strickland doesn’t really deliver. Those opening credits so precisely re-create the openings of 1970s, Euro-soft-core pornography, that you cannot help to expect that is the type of movie you’re sitting down to. There’s even a “Perfume by”, which is ridiculous, since no one in the audience can really know what anything on screen smells like – although simply having that credit there makes you think about it. The actual opening scene of the movie perpetuates the ruse Strickland is playing a little bit longer. A young woman, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), who has the perfect look to be the young woman in a movie like this, somehow both virginal and dripping with sexuality at the same time, rides her bike through the picturesque countryside. She arrives at the door of a ornate mansion, and rings the bell – and is immediately chastised by its owner, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who again perfectly fits the bill for the “older” woman in a movie like this (which means she is in her 50s) – rich, severe, cold and cruel – she gives Evelyn one demeaning task after another, all the while she either completely ignores her, or is outwardly cruel. When Evelyn messes up Cynthia’s laundry – the pair disappear behind a door, so that Cynthia can “punish” Evelyn – the punishment having something to do with dripping liquids, and is clearly sexual in nature. So far, Strickland seems to be delivering precisely the movie those opening credits promised. But that’s just the beginning of the movie – one in which Strickland will do far more than simply pay homage to those 1970s Euro soft core films – much like in his last film, Berberian Sound Studio, where he did far more than simply pay homage to the Giallo horror films of the same era. Strickland has a deep love of those movies – who can feel that in how precisely he recreates aspects of them. But he isn’t interested in making a copy – he has something deeper in mind (SPOILER WARNING. If you plan the to see the film, you may want to stop reading here. I won’t reveal everything about the plot to be sure, but even the earlier twists, about which it is impossible not to write, are something who may well want preserved. You’ve been warned).
If you go into The Duke of Burgundy expecting it to be what it looks like – like the Seinfeld gang wanting to see Rochelle, Rochelle – a young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk – you will likely be disappointed. Yes, the movie is about a Sadomasochistic lesbian relationship between Cynthia and Evelyn, but Strickland doesn’t dwell on the sex in movie. Yes, there are a few sex scenes – but surprisingly few. The movie does go into some detail about their sex life, but much of it isn’t actually the sex part – and can be rather un-erotic, as other people’s sexual fantasies often seem to outsiders, or else played for subdued humor (as in an hilarious sequence where a carpenter, specializing in bed with chambers, and human toilets, comes to speak to the pair). What The Duke of Burgundy is really about – and what makes it a universal story, even if it seems very specific – is what it means to really love someone, what you sacrifice, and what you indulge them with to make them happy, even if it doesn’t much interest you.
We start to see this in a sequence almost immediately following the first one, where Evelyn shows up, is chastised and demeaned by Cynthia, before being taken into the backroom for punishment. We see what is essentially the same sequence again – but this time, we don’t follow Evelyn, we follow Cynthia. She squeezes herself into the clothes, makes an effort with her hair, reads what are essentially cue cards trying to memorize what she is supposed to say, and drink glass after glass after glass of water (we will see this throughout the movie, and it takes on an edge of comedy eventually). Cynthia may be older, but Evelyn is the one in charge – and Cynthia is indulging her. She will do this throughout – from locking her into a box in the corner of the bedroom, and other things. They get into a fight when Cynthia comes to bed wearing something normal – and Evelyn is mad that she isn’t wearing the clothes she bought for her. “I need instructions to get into half the clothes you buy me. I just want to be comfortable for once” – Cynthia snaps back.
Do the pair actually love each other? I think Cynthia does indeed love Evelyn – which is why she indulges her in her sexual fantasies, even if they are not fantasies she shares. We all indulge our partners in something we don’t really like – whether it sadomasochistic fantasies or watching crappy TV. The pair of them are entomologists, and they spend a lot of time at lectures (curiously, only attended by women – I don’t think there is a man in the entire film). Cynthia sometimes lectures, and is quite clearly well-respected. Evelyn is more junior, and sometimes asks “silly” questions that embarrass her afterwards – but Cynthia always comforts and reassures her afterwards.
But at those same lectures, Evelyn cannot help noticing the woman who runs them – and her nice shiny, leather boots. Cynthia has a pair of those, and it’s one of Evelyn’s “duties” during their playtime to polish them. But what if she polished this other woman’s boots? What if this other woman were to chastise her, punish her. Evelyn eyes her hungrily, and her mind races. Does she love Cynthia – or is she simply using her? What do we make of some of what Cynthia does near the end of the movie – is she finally fed up, or is she just raising the stakes of the “game”.
Strickland is obsessive in the details of what is onscreen – those opening credits show that, but it runs through the rest of the movie as well. The costume are precisely, the score strangely erotic, yet also haunting, the sound mix is one of the most complex you will hear this this year. The movie verges of the avant garde at times – butterflies make an apt metaphor for the two women, and he has sequences here that almost bring to mind Stan Brakhage in that regard.
All of this is at a story that is at once very simple, and yet strangely moving and even somewhat profound. Strickland doesn’t clutter the movie with anything resembling a plot – nor even supporting characters. Aside from Cynthia and Evelyn, only the saleswoman and the speakers at the lectures even speak at all in the film. Strickland doesn’t need all those elements – he has everything he needs in the house, these two women (both actresses, by the way, are brilliant – especially Knudsen, who deserves Oscar consideration she will never receive) and their relationship. This is an early highlight of the year so far.