A ROOK FILM PRODUCTION DIRECTED & WRITTEN BY PETER STRICKLAND | PRODUCED BY ANDY STARKE | STARRING SIDSE BABETT KNUDSEN & CHIARA D’ANNA | MUSIC BY CAT’S EYES
RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes | UK / 2014
Cynthia and Evelyn love each other.
Day after day the couple act out a simple ritual that ends in Evelyn's punishment, but Cynthia yearns for a more conventional relationship.
Evelyn's obsession quickly becomes an addiction that pushes their relationship to breaking point.
The Duke of Burgundy is a dark melodrama from Peter Strickland, the multi-award winning writer and director of Berberian Sound Studio and Katalin Varga.
The Duke of Burgundy review
The Duke of Burgundy is a sumptuously shot drama, written and directed by Peter Strickland. Gloriously grand and softcore in its opening scenes, the movie enjoys playing out as either 1970s Horror or Erotica - you’re never sure which.
Initially the plotline seems built for libidinous fantasy; Evelyn is a downtrodden maid who visits her stern employer. She is criticized and verbally assaulted before punished behind closed doors in an audibly suggestive manner.
Yet all is not what it seems. For this movie has many layers; narrative, symbolism and even its sound engineering contains multitudes. Firstly, we are localized in Europe. It could be set anywhere, with only allusions to time and place through its fashion and backdrop. Undoubtedly this was a conscious decision as everything felt like a set piece; the garments were worn like costumes and cinematic techniques employed harked to yesteryear, solidly displacing the viewer.
So we peel back another layer when it is revealed that Cynthia, the cruel mistress, is in fact Evelyn’s lover and what we witnessed earlier is mere theatre – a role-play, which the two act out. In their normal lives Cynthia is a Lepidopterist (studying butterflies and moths) and Evelyn is her girlfriend. They inhabit a world, it seems, populated by women. This again seems a purposeful move, as their sadomasochistic relationship is void of the typical gender binaries associated with power.
Another allusion I felt came from traditions of Gothic Literature. The lovers live in a beautifully crumbling estate. Often these decrepit backdrops mirror the emotional and mental decay of its residents. This certainly resonates with Cynthia, the apparent domme who is more a slave to Evelyn’s incessant fetishes. Her home is furnished with dark and heavy textures, unsurprisingly oppressive on the eye, reflecting her own subjection.
As she grows more and more disenchanted by the tedium of her relationship, Evelyn too becomes increasingly frustrated and critical of her partner’s lack of dominant initiative. There is an echo here, which resonates powerfully and uncomfortably. We are used to seeing exchanges of sexuality within heterosexual relationships, yet here the transaction of power, lust and love is made more stark and poignant between women. Watching Cynthia enact her dominatrix-styled behaviour and utter scripted lines in an obviously uncomfortable manner is as grueling for the viewer as it is for her.
The motif of butterflies and moths can be read in many ways but there are a few that I found compelling. Being cocooned is an obvious but valid point. Evelyn is desperate for an enclosure of some sort; be it makeshift coffin or her lover’s own body. Cynthia too is enveloped by her clothing (notably bought by Evelyn) but this teeters between a lover’s tender swathing and cruel bondage. This is because, as the film labours on, it is clear that Cynthia is and has always been held hostage by Evelyn’s desires.
I’m a firm believer in Art eliciting feelings in its recipients. For me The Duke of Burgundy (to its merit) made me feel uncomfortable. From its sound layering of spectral whispers and moth rustling noises, it was grueling to watch. It was also painful to spy voyeuristically on Cynthia pushed to her emotional limits. Evelyn is childlike in her relentless pursuit for pleasure, yet critical and needy. Resultantly a chilling question is posed; does her loyalty lie in their relationship or to the fetish?
This portrayal of uncompromising need, repetition and power leaves us wondering who indeed is the real masochist in their union.
Watch The Duke of Burgundy on the big screen
The Duke of Burgundy is currently showing at Curzon Soho, Curzon Victoria and Barbican. You can also catch it for a few days at Hackney Picturehouse. Screenings can be found on the events calendar. The Duke of Burgundy is also due to be screening at BFI Flare in 2015.
View the trailer for The Duke of Burgundy here.