We begin quietly, sitting with a beautifully slim costumed lady as she waits sadly by a gurgling stream. The timbre of the water and the attention to sound already had me thinking of the opening sequence of Jan Svankmajer’s Alice, although that young lady is preparing herself to go on a very different journey.
We then follow the woman, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) as she rides her bike through the grounds of a large house set back in lush forest land and up to its imposing front blue stained glass door. Her seeming employer greets her, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) for whom she is meant to clean and so begins a daily ritual, which Peter Strickland repeatedly returns to through out the film. Soon we find out that Evelyn is not really the cleaner (for sure nobody cleans in that kind of outfit) but merely acting out sexual fantasies with Cynthia, who is her rather long suffering lover, and also a lepidopterist (moth and butterfly collector) in a The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Karel Weisz, Harold Pinter) kind of a way.
Thematically related to that film with its meta theatricality taken to extreme, it is revealed to us that daily Evelyn leaves Cynthia a hand written script that she must act out, describing even the tone and emotion with which something must be said and asking that appropriate punishments be given when she is naughty- these include her lover urinating into her face (so visually discreet it could be misunderstood) and locking her in a chest.
At times, interspersed with these ‘love’ scenes and Cynthia’s growing irritation and discomfort over her lover’s demands, the film is inter cut with rather beautiful imagery of flying moths and butterflies- at one point they simply converge on screen as if the camera itself were a flaming candle- the silence at these points in the film and the flashes of colour play like a Stan Brakhage animation– deeply soothing and meditative.
In interviews, Peter Strickland has acknowledged that he is drawn to melodrama although he wishes to par down sentiment. The Duke of Burgundy though, which is the name of a quickly going extinct British butterfly, is a lesson in restraining emotions and there is a continual chilling sense that one is watching an erotic thriller. And I was not convinced that this is a ‘tender love story’ as some male critics are excitedly writing, for me it is simply about power, a very small and less intriguing aspect of love. It is also in a way a ‘dirty’ movie, it is a world in which it is possible to buy a human toilet, or a mattress under which one can sleep whilst being smothered by one’s lover- there are no men, or hint of men, it is a world totally populated by women of a certain age and class.
Other critics have written that the film does well to expose the less delved into areas of relationships and their sexual frissons- and it is true that the film takes a very open and non judgmental look at S&M and role play (although one finds it has nothing to say about it, it is only daring in that it shows how it works). There is also a moment where the camera tracks slowly between Cynthia’s legs (the track is used to give us the sense we are actually entering) and there is then a short visual exposition of her inner life. This track changes the audience’s relationship to the characters- because it is a track and our point of view and not Evelyn’s as some critics are insisting- we feel like we are entering Cynthia and in way that Evelyn can’t or fails to do. It puts us on Cynthia’s side, gives us narrative distance and suddenly we are able to see not just how the characters’ but time and again, the audience’s own expectations are raised and confounded by Strickland’s constant play with meaning and power.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman could be a heavy influence and at any moment we expect the two actresses to step out of their make believe world and return to their trailers, except of course, they never do.
Peter Strickland makes difficult and unfamiliar films which, nevertheless, he hopes resonates with some aspect of the audience’s personal lives. I couldn’t quite find echoes with my own dilemmas or beliefs in this one, although I think I could be in a minority.
Find out for yourself by going and seeing the film, you can book for The Duke of Burgundy here