Unless you’re an avid butterfly enthusiast, you’d be forgiven for thinking The Duke of Burgundy was a film about French aristocracy by its title. Instead, a duke of burgundy is a European butterfly, and Peter Strickland’s mind trip of a movie chronicles the tawdry, uncomfortable S&M-laden relationship of two women, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna).
Cynthia is a professor who studies butterflies and moths, and appears to be in control of the younger Evelyn, forcing her student/maid to polish her boots, clean her underwear, and dust the study around her stately manor. It becomes clear (Duke of Burgundy takes its time to shed its layers, like its characters) that Evelyn is no maid; the couple are following a carefully plotted script, roleplaying parts in an S&M fantasy, day in, day out, rinse, repeat. Furthermore, while Evelyn is the subservient one getting sat on, or massaging feet, she is in control, feeding cue cards to Cynthia, coaching her lover to have more conviction in her bossiness.
But is she really in control? Are either of them? Have they lost control of each other, lost control of themselves in this dark and sadistic game? Duke of Burgundy questions the very nature of what these games mean, and what it says about relationships. The only real joy in watching this film comes from trying to figure out who is in control, as the two jockey and maneuver through the dark, seedy corridors of make-believe. It’s what I imagine Fifty Shades of Grey to be if it was written (well) by the LSD addled brain of a 1970’s smutty mystery writer. The film looks and feels like a highly saturated Hammer horror film, although the only monsters found are the unseemly whims of unchecked sexual desires. And bugs, lots and lots of bugs.
Duke of Burgundy is filled with erotic camera angles and voyeuristic scenes; the whole film makes you feel like a Peeping Tom, and made me wonder if the Duke of Burgundy title was a double entendre, and some horny French royal was jerking off behind the camera at it all. Duke of Burgundy is a movie that makes you dream up a lot of weird things. It’s what happens when moments of sex, of pleasure (or pretend), of S&M, are contrasted with butterflies, moths, the flapping of their wings, their unflagging insipid mating calls. The sound and sound design in this film is magnificently unnerving, which should come as no surprise given writer-director Peter Strickland’s track record (his last mind-fuck was Berberian Sound Studio, a film inspired by the bombastic and unsettling sounds of giallo, 70’s Italian horror films).
Peter Strickland is an undeniably talented and rich filmmaker. His shots are beautiful, intricate, his ideas are interesting, eclectic, different (I can’t even begin to explain the manikins), and he’s making movies with a very fine lens, focused tightly on uncomfortable subjects that certainly don’t appeal to a wide audience (or much of anyone beyond critics). This makes it all the more frustrating that I just don’t love his movies, and sometimes, I feel like the only one. Duke of Burgundy has an astonishing 100% on RottenTomatoes and it’s a film that wants you to think you’ve missed something, and convinces you that everyone else is seeing something you didn’t. It makes you overthink things, to concoct up labyrinthine reasons and twists for what you’re seeing, when it might just be about a woman drinking tons of water in order to pee on her partner.
I’m still not entirely sure what I saw, but I know that Duke of Burgundy is worth experiencing. Cynthia and Evelyn have a safe word, “pinastri,” (a species of moth) uttered by Evelyn whenever she wants to be untied and let out of a chest (which may as well be her coffin) at night. You’ll be whispering it just as fervently as Evelyn is throughout, wanting out of this movie several times, yet you’ll be unable to turn away, absolutely hooked on whatever the hell you’re witnessing.
The Duke of Burgundy opens in theaters January 23, 2015. It opens at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in West LA and IFC Center in New York