Peter Strickland is a master manipulator of mood. As Festival audiences who experienced his 2012 film Berberian Sound Studio can attest, the English writer-director and long-time experimental musician also has an exceptional knack for paying sly homage to traditionally lowbrow genres. Where Berberian Sound Studio was a tribute to giallo films in the guise of a discomfiting mind-bender, Strickland’s latest reconfigures the vintage erotic melodrama into something altogether deeper and darker.
Taking its title from a rare species of butterfly, The Duke of Burgundy chronicles the increasingly intimate relationship between wealthy amateur lepidopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen, of acclaimed Danish television drama Borgen) and her newly hired housekeeper, Evelyn (Berberian Sound Studio’s Chiara D’Anna). As Cynthia’s demands begin to betray a sadomasochistic streak, Evelyn becomes less a domestic servant than an outright sex slave, submitting to her progressively extreme humiliations with a surprising relish.
In another director’s hands, this material might easily have tipped into the schlocky or the severe. Strickland, however, once again demonstrates a marvellous gift for modulating tone, pitching the tenor of his film in a strange, beguiling register somewhere between Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour and Joseph Losey’s The Servant. By turns kinky, dryly comic, and compellingly surreal, and boasting gorgeous, gothic cinematography and an enveloping score by orchestral pop duo Cat’s Eyes, The Duke of Burgundy is — like Strickland’s previous work — a richly immersive sensory experience. (CAMERON BAILEY, TIFF.net)
Had it not already been snaffled by Ingmar Bergman, another apt title for the new Peter Strickland film would have been Persona. The Duke of Burgundy, Strickland’s spectral, seductive third feature, is about the strange imposture of love: the way it can leave you feeling not quite yourself, suspended, even trapped between the person you really are and the person your partner craves.
Like Bergman’s film, Strickland’s is about a burningly intimate relationship between two women that blossoms in a place set apart from the real world. In Persona, that was the remote Swedish island of Fårö; here, it’s a picturesque village surrounded by a moss-draped forest in what appears to be Eastern Europe. It’s also entirely inhabited by women. The film contains no men.
It opens on Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) sitting calmly in a glade by a stream. It’s a quiet place, a kind of sanctuary, perhaps, and Strickland’s camera roams over gnarled bark and toadstools. She climbs on her bicycle and rides back into town, and the opening titles play over a jolly tune, although a handful of unusual credits – Perfumes by Je Suis Gizelle, for one – make you wonder whose fiction, exactly, we might be straying into.
Another credit here attributes not simply the clothes, but “dress and lingerie”, to Andrea Flesch – a real costume designer, but with a name that could hardly be bettered by a fantasy one. This is, I think, the first film I’ve ever seen to offer a specific lingerie credit, and certainly the first to do so within five minutes of the film’s beginning. Let’s just say in this case, credit is due.
Evelyn is a housekeeper in the employ of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen, best known for playing the Danish Prime Minster in the television series Borgen), a keen collector of butterflies and moths who lectures at a local institute. One of her display cases is full of the titular insect: a smallish, rare-ish, tiger-mottled creature with a plump body and fuzzy antennae.
When Evelyn arrives home, Cynthia scolds her; when she apologises, Cynthia casually tosses a sweet wrapper on the floor and makes her pick it up. Ashamed, Evelyn scuttles off to the laundry room to wash ?her mistress’s underwear, and again, Strickland’s camera again roves over the details, finding visual echoes in the lace and suds, and watching how long each rainbow-coloured bubble takes to pop.
As should now be reasonably clear, The Duke of Burgundy is hair-raisingly kinky stuff, although only after a while do we realise the film itself is engaged in role-play with its audience, meeting certain expectations that it later tantalisingly subverts. Lines of dialogue that once meant one thing are suddenly charged with their opposite meaning. There’s even a safe-word, ? “?pinaster?”?, one of the varieties of pines that cloak the village from the outside world.
In the same way Strickland’s last film, Berberian Sound Studio, invoked the black gloves and curdled screams of giallo horror without actually making a home for itself in that genre, The Duke of Burgundy draws on the sexually charged European chillers of the late 1970s, by directors like Jess Franco and Joe D’Amato – it operates at the same kind of sex-dazed remove as Vampyros Lesbos or Lorna the Exorcist, although here, that forbidden creaminess comes spiced with very British humour. (During an anxious discussion about the construction times of various elaborate bondage devices, a character called ?”?the Carpenter?”?, played by Fatma Mohamed, chirpily suggests: “Would a human toilet be of interest?”)
Elsewhere, there are psychedelic, moth-based hallucinations that recall Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill, and a sinister Lynchian dream that begins with a Mulholland Drive-like zoom into a box, of sorts. Knudsen and D’Anna are both terrific, and have tremblingly palpable chemistry, although the film is so teasing and elusive that after one viewing, you just want to watch the thing again, and feel your way again around its contours. Second time around, I suspect I might love it even more. I gasped and squirmed, but never once thought of shouting ?”?pinaster?”?. (Robbie Collin, The Telegraph – voto: 4/5)
Every day, the two women enact their elaborate fantasy of domination and submission. Evelyn (“Berberian” star Chiara D’Anna), the younger, plays the part of a soft-spoken maid with wide green eyes and porcelain cheekbones. Cynthia (Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen) is the middle-aged mistress of the house, for whom nothing Evelyn does is ever quite right, and who doles out kinky, humiliating punishments commensurate to each violation. An errant pair of Cynthia’s panties, found separated from the rest of the (hand-washed) laundry, is sure to result in a special scolding behind a closed bathroom door, where that sound of trickling water you hear isn’t emanating from a tap.
Although Evelyn initially appears to be the submissive underling here, it’s soon revealed that she’s actually the puppet master, literally scripting the action in advance (rather like a filmmaker) on cards she leaves scattered about the house. The instructions are obsessively detailed down to the precise amount of time Cynthia should leave her locked inside an old wooden trunk (where she always seems to end up) and at what point in the ritual she should do something “surprising” (not during the first hour, but not during the last hour either). In lieu of “uncle,” the safe word here, should things ever get too out of hand, is “pinastri,” Latin for a species of moth.
We don’t know, and never learn, exactly how long these theatrics have been going on — nor, for that matter, exactly when and where “The Duke of Burgundy” is even taking place. (“Somewhere, sometime in Europe” is all the press kit allows, though the costumes and the presence of electric lights suggest the Victorian era. The actual shooting was done in Hungary, where Strickland resides.) But we do know from relatively early in Strickland’s film that, like so many long-term relationships, this one has reached the point where that old piss-in-my-mouth-and-lock-me-in-a-box routine isn’t quite the turn-on that perhaps it once was. Put simply, the thrill is gone.
It’s one of the seductive strengths of “The Duke of Burgundy” that, for all its surface provocation, the movie’s central relationship emerges as a surprisingly tender romance between two people who each fear losing the other, even as they acknowledge that the initial spark of passion has grown fainter over time. That’s largely a credit to the performances of D’Anna and Knudsen, who play things straight (so to speak), and who communicate volumes about their characters through the subtlest variations on their endlessly repeated scene — a structure that gives the movie a glancing connection with Jacques Rivette’s classic “Celine and Julie Go Boating.” And while not all audiences may relate to this particular couple’s efforts at renewal (including, in perhaps the most memorable scene, a consultation with a custom fetish-bed carpenter), the underlying emotions are nevertheless universal.
The women of “The Duke of Burgundy” rarely set aside their role playing, except to attend lectures at some sort of insect-appreciation society whose membership (like the cast of Strickland’s film) is entirely female. (Look closely for a couple of mannequins impishly inserted among the crowd.) Like the sound recordist capturing endless variations on a scream in “Berberian Sound Studio,” these society ladies listen to field recordings of butterfly sounds — actual archival ones, including that of the titular Duke, indexed at length in the end credits — as if they were hearing the most rare and beautiful music in the world. And then there are Evelyn and Cynthia themselves, each in her own way an elegant specimen held down by pins. Which, one could argue, makes them perfect for each other.
Sound, we’re told, is one of the most important factors in insect classification, and it’s similarly central to Strickland’s sense of cinema (something that was already evident in his 2009 debut, “Katalin Varga”). The clarity of the recording in “The Duke of Burgundy” is hyper-real, to the point that every squeak of a rusty bicycle chain, every rustle of a cotton sheet, and every bead of water dripping from that hand-washed laundry echoes through the surround speakers like a thunderclap. It’s as if sound carries its own erotic quality for Strickland, and it’s how he pulls the audience deeply into his movies’ very particular, peculiar worlds.
Knowing that so much of desire lies in suggestion and anticipation, Strickland keeps “Duke’s” most explicit acts tastefully offscreen. For a film that is in so many respects a proudly analog affair, it comes as a surprise to learn that d.p. Nic Knowland’s dense, celluloid-like widescreen lensing was achieved digitally. Screen credits include what are surely two firsts: a “perfumes by” card, and a “human toilet consultant.” (Scott Foundas, Variety)