As long as no one gets hurt, a game of roleplay between two girls seems a welcome alternative to a routine, lazy afternoon at home.
In British director Peter Strickland’s “The Duke of Burgundy,” however, several factors complicate this innocent suggestion: first, the game is sadomasochistic; second, the girls are in love; third, the game continues almost ceaselessly through their days and nights. The trance-like game of power and submission morphs the characters’ tender relationship into a laborious shell.
The film takes place in the midst of a relationship. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is a lepidopetrist – an expert on moths and butterflies – and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) is her younger housekeeper. The film begins with Cynthia in the dominant role, rigidly poised in a chair, giving commands as Evelyn inches along the floor, scrubbing it. Realising that Evelyn left one of her panties out of the wash, she abruptly punishes her (drags her to a washroom, tells her to open her mouth and urinates in it).
The scene replays, revealing some behind-the-scenes details. Cynthia awaits Evelyn’s arrival. Drinking cup upon cup of water, she reads notecards from her lover, all of which begin with “my love” and end with instructions – complete with kinky dialogue – revealing that it has been Evelyn, all along, who has been scripting her own punishment. We learn that the Cynthia and Evelyn we have imagined are purely characters in Cynthia’s self-gratifying game, in which Cynthia is only a begrudging participant.
Having revealed this disparity, the film proceeds, as if peeling an onion, to excavate the layers of the couple’s relationship. Rather than the perfect theatricals we initially expect, the couple has conflicts about gameplay which lead to conflicts about their relationship (Cynthia explains: “I do love you, I just have a different way of showing it!”).
With little to offer in the way of plot, “The Duke of Burgundy’s” main focus is on constructing an alternate visual dimension, artfully filmed by cinematographer Nicholas Knowland and supported by an other-worldly score composed by alternative pop duo Cat’s Eyes. In this world, all characters are female, all décor is butterflies and the audience at the lepidopteran institute where Cynthia lectures even includes the odd plastic mannequin. Though the film’s plot follows a chronological order, it takes tangential breaks from reality, delving deeper into the couple’s psychology with hypnotic, surreal scenes, including one in which Evelyn, obsessed with being bound and trapped inside a black box, turns to bone. Strickland takes ample advantage of the film medium to create an experimental experience that never drags.
Set in a women’s world, “The Duke of Burgundy” also depicts a less typical flavor of sensuality. It places such a painstaking focus on lingerie – corsets, nightgowns, hosiery and panties – that it might as well be an elaborate undergarment commercial. Motifs such as a repeated shot of Cynthia’s panties hanging on a wire hint at the innocent stuff of lesbian fantasies rather than the distant longings of a heterosexual male. Considering that the director is male, the film’s treatment of a romance between females is strikingly intimate; an unaggrandized fantasy.
Following the characteristics of European LGBT cinema, the film portrays the lesbian romance as a matter of fact. It seems to draw upon the paraphernalia of womanhood and lesbian sex to contribute to its trancelike aesthetic.
Focusing on aesthetics and atmosphere, the film does not go beyond a portrait of a relationship. It presents, but does not explore. When her lover begins to blatantly ignore her, Evelyn starts to learn about “real” pain. Rather than help to either develop or hinder the lovers’ relationship, the conflict simply happens.
Plot decisions such as this make sense in the film’s hypnotic setting. They do not, on the other hand, do full justice to Cynthia and Evelyn’s complex relationship, which has been set up with an abundance of psychological detail, including the heartbreaking disparity in what they want from the relationship. The lovers shoot for intimacy in the dark, missing again and again.
“The Duke of Burgundy” is a film about a rift in a beautiful relationship. Longing and loss bleed through the intricate butterfly montages, soft sex scenes and dialogue. The world that Strickland constructs remains, however, shrouded in mystery. We are able to observe in awe, stagnant in a realm of feeling rather than caring.