The Duke of Burgundy / UK
Written and directed by Peter Strickland
Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna
The rites of BDSM are explored with refinement and intelligence in The Duke of Burgundy and without even a smidgeon of genitalia. The “otherness” of the lifestyle is muted by the exceptional artistry in the world it inhabits, compassion with which it’s executed and the familiar human factor. It doesn’t pretend to shed new light on sex; it is top to bottom a love story, about what happens in a rough patch. It’s a love story pretending to be a mistress/servant drama.
Indeed, two women find their way out of the dark and into the future via well-worn sado-masochistic rituals and knowing when to stop. They are mired in ritual and artifice and something has to give. Or does it? The film operates on multiple levels, as deadly earnest, as a parody and a series of tricks. Nothing is what it appears to be.
It’s impossible to know where and when this dark fairy tale takes place, and the characters as they are presented to us, are lies. The truth outs itself over time, and we feel foolish because we missed or misinterpreted the signs. In a strange way, the movie is the dominant, and our projections fall under it.
No men appear in the film, just the lovers Evelyn and Cynthia, The Carpenter, a woman, a clucking next-door neighbour and two academic audiences. It’s a staid, closed world, anchored by repetitive, obsessive psychosexual ritual and discipline; you forget about men. That energy would upset the carefully drawn applecart.
It’s a pastiche of familiar themes, metaphysical and sometimes surreal, the love story and its rocky road, the fantasy and reality. It’s prettied up with elements of fairy tales and fables, its absurd and it is truth from the heart.
Evelyn (D’Anna) is the supposed submissive, smaller of the two women who appears to take all the punishment for not cleaning fast enough, failing to rinse her mistress’ underwear properly or shine her boots on deadline leads to certain punishments. She’s sometimes deliberately lazy, and waits for her mistress’ ministrations.
Cynthia (Knudsen) is the putative boss, demanding satisfaction from heights afforded her by towering stilettos. Housework and ritual must follow the script, honed over many years. She’s featured in long lingering sequences (through a keyhole) changing her clothes for the next “punishment”, shiny black, fetishistic, yet ladylike under things, heeled boots and formal day wear of pencil skirts and ultra-feminine blouses for teaching, reading and hassling the help.
By day Cynthia lectures to a small group of women – and a few mannequins – on etymology, specifically moths and butterflies. The all-female audiences, extremely well dressed in the French style, listen to recordings of moths and learn how the bugs make their way through life in glorious detail. Hundreds of moths and butterflies find their final resting places nailed to the walls of their home.
Domestic life is all about the rituals. Evelyn knocks at the front door; Cynthia answers and tells her to start in the study. Cleaning. You’ll become familiar with the “play” as it’s repeated just enough to be interesting. There is a handwritten script. There are no electronic devices.
One day The Carpenter pays a visit to discuss their order of a trap bed, with a locking compartment under the mattress. It is currently unavailable and Evelyn is especially disappointed, but The Carpenter offers the Human Toilet as an alternative.
We begin to learn more, step by step and find we’ve been duped. Evelyn’s habit of drinking glass after glass of water and checking herself in the mirror suggests unease and soon it’s clear why. The film has had its way with us.
It is shot seventies style in candlelit wide shots, contrasting the detailed dark timeless chiaroscuro rooms and the farmers’ fields where they go to read. There are few identifiers. It could be in Europe or the UK or anywhere else.
Evelyn and Cynthia speak English but with different accents. Judging by hair, makeup and wardrobe it could be the late ‘70s. The elaborately decorated stately home mixes antiques with new, upscale and low, so it is in effect, timeless.
The filmmakers play for gags mashing up various elements from other films, refusing to be set in time and place and switching roles. But considered on its own, The Duke of Burgundy is a complete, compelling, sumptuous and highly rewarding cinematic experience.