The Duke of Burgundy is like an ornately crafted emotional puzzle box. It is a film of beautiful surfaces and constantly shifting perspectives. Immaculately photographed with luxurious interiors, the film is, for the most part, a two-hander featuring two beautiful lead actresses, both of whom give compelling, truthful performances. Like director Peter Strickland’s previous film, Berberian Sound Studio, this is something of a slow burner, a ‘70s-influenced genre story on its surface that plays by none of the rules of a typical genre film.
Also like Berberian Sound Studio — set almost entirely in a single sound studio in which voice actors and foley artists craft the soundtrack for a film we never see — Strickland creates an incredibly intoxicating film with a very limited setting. The Duke of Burgundy contains only a handful of locations, but Strickland, along with cinematographer Nicholas D. Knowland, forms a dense lexicon of alluring images: moths flying in the dark, soapy water, cabinets full of pinned butterflies. If the film’s exquisite surfaces risk trapping the characters like those pinned butterflies under glass, Strickland wisely cuts the beauty with a healthy dose of dry humor. But the core of the film is its surprisingly resonant take on the difficulties of committed relationships.
To describe the content of The Duke of Burgundy is to make it sound like an exceedingly bizarre film. It is the story of a lesbian couple heavily into S&M dominance and submission play, taking the form of a daily reenactment of a stern master/meek servant relationship, each line and gesture precisely scripted. These two women, dom Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and sub Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) also happen to be scholarly entomologists, particularly interested in butterflies and moths, who regularly attend lectures at a nearby insect institute. They live in an exquisite manor in the English countryside around the turn of the nineteenth century — this is a guess; the place and time are never specified — a land seemingly populated entirely by women. (No men appear onscreen throughout the entire film.) The opening titles feature credits for perfume and lingerie. There are detailed discussions of specially made beds to allow one lover to sleep atop the other. The phrase “human toilet” is uttered more than once. There is a dream sequence that takes place entirely inside of a vagina.
And yet, Peter Strickland directs with such assuredness that we accept all of these strange goings-on without batting an eye. The film establishes its own strange logic based on the true spine of the story: the relationship between Cynthia and Evelyn. Because for all its bizarre and erotic accoutrements, The Duke of Burgundy is, at its core, a film about the complex power dynamics at play between lovers. If the typical S&M story is about the erotic thrill of giving oneself over completely — physically and emotionally — to another human being, The Duke of Burgundy uses S&M as a means of exposing the shifting concepts of dominance and submission in all romantic relationships.
Almost from the start, we question who exactly is being dominated here. In the opening scene, Evelyn arrives at a beautiful country house, playing the role of the maid. Cynthia humiliates her, forcing her to scrub the floor and launder her panties. At one point, Cynthia urinates into Evelyn’s mouth. Something seems off here. The gestures are too precise, the lines too perfect. The next day, we see the two women going through the exact same motions, this time from Cynthia’s perspective. She seems oddly nervous and not quite into the whole thing. We slowly discover that Cynthia is following a carefully written script, one she seems afraid to mess up. She starts to seem less a dominatrix than a cowed lover, afraid of disturbing Evelyn’s prescribed routine.
But, as the film goes on, even this seeming role reversal — the dom as the true sub — is revealed to be too pat. Strickland is not dealing in easy binaries but in the messy realities of love. There can’t be said to be any true “dom” or “sub” in this relationship. Evelyn and Cynthia are each, by turns, cruel, vulnerable, powerful, passionate, loving. The line between the S&M game and the true relationship gets increasingly blurred, and soon it becomes hard to tell the true emotion from the game. Cynthia clearly resents the repetition, the torturous lingerie, the constant games. Evelyn seems to use the S&M games as a crutch, a way of preserving the sexual charge that comes with new love. True to its emotional complexity, The Duke of Burgundy does not resolve with any easy answers. What was complex and mysterious in the beginning remains so in the end, but the thrill is most definitely gone.
On Blu-ray and DVD today from Shout! Factory