Writer/director Peter Strickland turns his eye to sexuality in the follow-up to his celebrated Berberian Sound Studio. The Duke of Burgundy chronicles the relationship between Cynthia (Sidse Babbett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), lovers and entomologists who specialize in butterflies (of which the titular Duke is in fact a European species), a relationship with a strong BDSM dimension.
Strickland’s affinity for exploitation cinema of the 1970s is clear, with parallels being drawn between Duke and the work of Jean Rollin and Jess Franco, along with the era’s softcore strain in general. But Strickland seems less interested in the erotic than the trappings of the erotic. Which isn’t to say the film isn’t kinky: a minor plot point revolves around a device whose very function I’d prefer not to think about. There’s also almost no nudity here, but plenty of high-heeled boots, false eyelashes, and elaborate lingerie. (It speaks volumes that, in the opening titles, the first two credits after the cast go to the film’s suppliers of lingerie and perfume.)
The theme of appearance versus reality is vital to the film: at first, Cynthia appears to be the “top” of the relationship (haughty demeanor, expensive clothes) and Evelyn the “bottom” (simpler garb, meek and servile body language) but Strickland gradually reveals more complexity to their dynamic. Small moments, such as Cynthia exacerbating a back injury by tying herself tightly into a corset or being chided by Evelyn for wearing frumpy, baggy pajamas, cut deeper and expose a darker truth about their dynamic. It’s not likely either woman would ever find herself entirely fulfilled by the partnership.
From a directorial standpoint, Strickland redefines the phrase “feast for the senses” with Duke, with the cinematography, production and costume design, and Bulgarian location work being some of the most strikingly beautiful of recent years. This is a filmmaker who can turn a simple horizontal tracking shot into a work of art. (But then again, I’m always impressed by effective Steadicam use.) Sound design also takes a prime role–unsurprising, considering Strickland’s breakthrough was a film about a Foley artist. Anglo-Canadian duo Cat’s Eyes provide an ethereal score, led by harpsichord, Mellotron, and breathy soprano vocals; so authentically retro it’s hard to believe it wasn’t composed and recorded in the ’70s.
The down-sides? Not many. I think audiences might find themselves frustrated by the film’s lack of plot and tendency to cover and re-cover old ground, alienated by the characters’ occasional unlikability (especially Evelyn, who probably fits the definition of “protagonist” better than Cynthia), and stymied by Strickland’s use of insect imagery and symbolism. For myself, the visual and aural elements of the production always kept me engaged throughout when my interest in other aspects occasionally flagged, but the individual viewer’s mileage may vary, as always.
The Duke of Burgundy is a fascinating portrait of complex relationship dynamics, engrossing in both its story and its aesthetics. If it doesn’t end up one of my best films of 2015, I’ll be shocked.