Archive for March, 2015

The_Duke_of_Burgundy_UK_Poster

Director: Peter Strickland

Writer: Peter Strickland

Country: UK

Runtime: 104 mins

Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen (Cynthia), Chiara d’Anna (Evelyn), Fatma Mohamed (The Carpenter), Eugenia Caruso (Dr Fraxini), Monica Swinn (Lorna), Eszter Tompa (Dr Viridana), Kata Bartsch (Dr Lurida), Zita Kraszkó (Dr Schuller)

This pastiche of seventies soft-core movies has a serious theme at its heart

Aware that The Duke of Burgundy tells the story of a S&M lesbian relationship, the biggest surprise for me was just how funny this picture is, sometimes in a laugh-inwardly kind of way but also with quite a few laugh-out-louds (at least that was the case with the audience I sat among). There is little, if anything, by way of titillation, and in fact no nudity, so anyone expecting this is likely to be disappointed. Paving the way for the subsequent deadpan humour, the visuals accompanying the opening credits are pastiches of soft-core seventies movies, involving a series of fuzzy freeze-frames as a woman cycles through the countryside. The credits themselves include one for the provision of perfumes as well as a “human toilet consultant”.

The story begins with a primly-dressed young woman, Evelyn, arriving at a rather grand country house, where the imperious unsmiling Cynthia orders her to perform various cleaning duties around the house. The tone of command hints that this isn’t a straightforward employer-employee relationship, as does the instruction to Evelyn to hand-wash Cynthia’s panties. The suggestiveness is ramped up a bit more when Evelyn is ordered to provide a foot massage. However, when Cynthia discovers that Evelyn has failed to complete one of her duties properly the younger woman is marched towards the bathroom for punishment. The door closes behind them and the camera remains outside focused on the frosted glass, as we hear the unambiguous sound of Cynthia urinating into Evelyn’s mouth.

However, this sub-dom relationship is not quite what it seems. The apparently dominant Cynthia is actually following a script that has been written by Evelyn, a script that they seem to repeat most days. Evelyn is thrilled to have found someone who is happy to fulfil her particular desires and eager to find new ways to be dominated (such as being locked in a trunk overnight). For Cynthia, though, the older of the two women, the game is starting to get a little stale. She complains that she needs an instruction manual to get into the clothes that Evelyn buys her and rebels by dressing in baggy pyjamas. And she is less than impressed by Evelyn’s obsessive wish to carry on their sub-dom games even when she has ricked her back.

Here lies the more serious heart of the film. Director Peter Strickland poses the question of how two people can continue to fulfil each other as a relationship matures. This clearly applies to any relationship, whether gay or straight, and regardless of whether the sex is kinky or vanilla.

There are no men in The Duke of Burgundy. The title itself refers to a species of butterfly, an insect whose shape has an obvious sexual connotation. Cynthia herself is a lepidopterist and, with Evelyn, attends talks about butterflies at a scientific institution. For no obvious reason, apart from continuing the soft-core pastiche, all the speakers and audience members are women. One senior member, Dr Fraxini, gives every impression that she too might well enjoy lesbian S&M. She always stands at the side of the stage, dressed in tight-fitting clothes and tall black leather boots, her dark eyes staring down at the women. At one point she crops up as a figure of jealousy in an argument between Cynthia and Evelyn, after the former reveals that Evelyn has been seen cleaning Dr Fraxini’s boots.

As the story moves into more serious territory there is a rather dark and gothic sequence, recalling Strickland’s previous film, the giallo-inspired Berberian Sound Studio. But as the final credits roll, Strickland’s humour is once again evident as the names of various butterfly species scroll before our eyes.

The performances of the two lead actors cannot be praised enough. Sidse Babett Knudsen (familiar to many viewers as the Prime Minister in the Danish TV series Borgen) and Chiara d’Anna (who featured in Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio) play it straight – so to speak – all the way through, which makes the absurdity of their games all the funnier. But they also convey a real depth of emotion. There is no doubt about the love the characters feel for each other, which imbues the conflict in their relationship with a real sadness.

Rating: 4/5