Peter Strickland is a British filmmaker with a steadily growing cult following, and with only four features under his belt, he’s established himself as one of the U.K.’s preeminent visual stylists. Strickland’s 2014 film, The Duke of Burgundy, is a relationship drama with a provocative twist and deserves to be discovered by a much wider audience. It stars Chiara D’Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen as Evelyn and Cynthia, two women living in the countryside during a deliberately ambiguous pre-digital age where English is spoken with a mishmash of European accents. Evelyn is the younger, smaller, and more timid of the two. She’s first shown arriving by bicycle to provide maid service at Cynthia’s estate. However, Cynthia treats her less like a servant and more like a slave. When Evelyn’s job performance doesn’t meet expectations, Cynthia administers a punishment that an actual maid would never tolerate. It quickly becomes obvious that they’re acting out domination fantasies. In reality, they live together as a committed couple. In addition to their active S&M sex life, they share a love of entomology with an emphasis on studying and collecting butterflies – a central metaphor for the entire film. Despite what initially appears to be a finely tuned and loving relationship, conflict arises from Cynthia’s festering dissatisfaction, leading to an erotic exploration of one couple’s struggle to establish a new equilibrium.
Evelyn and Cynthia live in world that borders on surreality. It’s a place where actual women join female mannequins in attending lectures by Lepidopterists, men don’t seem to exist at all, and S&M fetishists abound. Take for example a local woodworker who specializes in making custom devices for domination aficionados; even though she operates in a sparsely populated area, her services are so in demand she has eight weeks of backorders.
Watching The Duke of Burgundy is a decidedly sensual experience. That’s because its sensuality isn’t confined to intimate encounters; it permeates virtually every frame. Slightly heightened ambient sounds, cinematography that accentuates the textures of everything from skin to butterfly wings, and an ethereal score written by the alternative pop duo Cat’s Eyes combine to create an almost hypnotic sensory experience. Everything works in concert to arouse our senses, beginning when the name of the company that ostensibly supplied perfume is boldly displayed in the opening credits – a clever touch that also establishes the occasionally playful tone; the narrative treats Evelyn and Cynthia’s unconventional relationship with respect and empathy, without exploitation or perceivable male gaze, but at the same time there no shortage of subtle humor derived from the inherent contrivances of their role-playing.
A quick note about the title: the closing credits list the names of all the insects used in the film in the order of their appearance. “Duke of Burgundy” is on that list. A Google search reveals it’s a butterfly native to England. Like all butterflies, the Duke of Burgundy is a delicate creature most vulnerable in its pupal state, not unlike Evelyn during her preferred form of punishment – locked inside a trunk! All kinkiness notwithstanding, The Duke of Burgundy is a sympathetic look at the negotiations and compromises that often need to occur in relationships after they suddenly and unexpectedly morph into something that threatens to flutter away.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski