British writer-director Peter Strickland’s previous film was the unique blast of sound and surrealism, Berbarian Sound Studio, a frighteningly weird period piece about the making of a lurid Italian horror film and its sound engineer’s gradual sinking into madness.
Strickland’s debut saw him head to Transylvania to shoot Katalin Varga, a foreign-language revenge picture, with just £28,000 inherited from his uncle. With movies like those behind him, you can bet that what is ostensibly a drama about a commanding writer and butterfly collector, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her kinky relationship with her maid, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) would have more going on than it first appears. Strickland’s previous fascination with the distinctive style of 60s and 70s Italian filmmaking continues here, with The Duke Of Burgundy’s fluid camerawork and rural setting calling to mind the moviemaking tics of Mario Bava and Dario Argento.
The film unfolds like a giallo thriller, except here, there’s no killer to puncture the sense of unease, no splash of blood to release the pressure valve of sexual tension. Taking place in an indistinct time and place in recent history, full of old libraries, Victorian furniture and long seminars about butterflies, The Duke Of Burgundy’s tone and symbolism is as hard to grasp as the winged insect its title refers to.
The dynamic in Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship initially seems perfectly clear: the educated, glacial Cynthia is the dominant partner while Evelyn is the childlike, submissive one, with the former greatly enjoying her control over the latter. Gradually, however, we learn that the nature of their relationship is more complex than that: each is assuming a role in a strange erotic game – a game that is both fulfilling and ultimately stifling.
Even the world around Cynthia and Evelyn seems disconcertingly false. When they attend butterfly lectures together, we can just about see that in the back row of the small but rapt audience sits a shop dummy. At first, you might think you’ve imagined it, such is the hypnotic, almost hallucinatory air that Strickland conjures up. But then, as the camera tracks across, we spot another one. What’s going on here?
The Duke Of Burgundy is full of little details and mysteries such as these – many of which go unremarked and unresolved. Like Berbarian Sound Studio, this oppressively intimate film seems to be about building up a mood rather than answering questions. Again, like Strickland’s previous movie, The Duke Of Burgundy could be seen as a film about filmmaking, about the transaction that takes place between actor and director, and a filmmaker and his or her audience.
Cynthia and Evelyn are playing distinct roles in their relationship – ones far removed from their real personalities. Scripted lines are written on cue cards, and precise paths they’re supposed to walk are marked out on the floor with strips of masking tape. At first, the pair revel in the charge of their relationship. But as they continue their charade, playing out each scene over and over again, the conviction goes out of their performances. Gradually, they find their prescribed roles harder and harder to keep up.
It’s an odd, detached turn from D’Anna as Evelyn, but it’s also vulnerable and disarmingly funny. Knudsen is superb as the older half of the relationship, Cynthia. There’s a sadness in her eyes as she begins to wonder whether Evelyn loves her or the part she plays, and it’s a subtle, studied performance. Overwhelmingly, though, The Duke Of Burgundy is a filmmaker’s film, its claustrophobic drama scenes intercut with geometric images of butterflies impaled in boxes or close-ups of intricate carvings on an old wooden box.
It has to be said that it’s a quietly hilarious film, too, and unusually restrained, given its kinky subject matter. There’s a scene in here in which the central couple order a bespoke piece of masochistic furniture from an unfeasibly glamorous visiting saleswoman, and it’s exquisitely awkward.
Oblique, slow-moving and surreal, The Duke Of Burgundy will be an acquired taste for some. But it’s also beautifully shot, aurally mesmerising and, at times, an oddly fascinating study of a most unusual love affair. Strickland doesn’t judge his characters; he merely observes them, as a lepidopterist might an unusual species of moth. Like Berbarian Sound Studio, this is another curious indie gem from a truly individual filmmaker.
The Duke Of Burgundy screens at the London Film Festival on the 19th October.
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