Monday’s Movie You Might Have Missed: The Duke of Burgundy (2015)
At its core, The Duke of Burgundy is about two people looking and hoping for what anyone looks for in their lover: someone with whom they can be open about their deepest vulnerabilities. Its approach is unconventional, but results are no less profound and, at times, breathtakingly beautiful.
The film, written and directed by Peter Strickland, tells the story of Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) and Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a couple living on the edge of a woodland in a French dreamscape. Cynthia teaches lepidopterology (the study of moths and butterflies) and Evelyn is a student. This isn’t quite a May-December romance; Evelyn doesn’t appear to study anything else, and although she’s clearly younger than Cynthia, she is not a starstruck co-ed. Their sex life at home consists mostly of role plays in which Cynthia plays the part of a cold, demanding mistress and Evelyn a clumsy maid.
This is an undeniably erotic film, and BDSM plays a significant part in the story (at one point in the film Cynthia grows suspicious of infidelity when she finds out Evelyn polished another woman’s boots). However, this is a film about people and feelings, not just sex. Cynthia plays the part of a dominatrix but when they let role play cease at night it’s clear the Evelyn is calling the shots in their relationship. Playing the same part day in day out to please her partner drains Cynthia emotionally. Knudsen beautifully conveys her weariness as Evelyn asks Cynthia to get into character one morning when she simply wants to tell her partner how much she loves her. A brilliant sequence showcases a day entirely from Cynthia’s point of view. She’s far more nervous about scolding, spanking, and tying up Evelyn than Evelyn is about being on the receiving end. “Was I too cold?” Cynthia says at the end of one day. “The colder the better,” Evelyn replies. Later, Cynthia reads a note with Evelyn’s requests for the next day. “Cold” it simply says, and Cynthia nearly doubles over with frustration.
For a film so deeply about feeling and sensation, Strickland appropriately approaches the film as a multi-sensory experience. The images are painterly, saturated, and often quite beautiful simply for their own sake. The sounds covey the sense of touch; the tension of a boot being zipped up, the sound of bubbles popping in a sink, and the constant flutter of butterflies’ wings.
The Duke of Burgundy is sensuous but it doesn’t fetishize the characters. The dark eroticism of the early scenes soon convey a sense of monotony as they are repeated, as and both Cynthia and Evelyn’s weariness with the repetition becomes evident. They are constantly in communication, trying to find a balance in their relationship. It might do Hollywood movies some good to see how open and communicative the characters in this film are. This film might have the look of an exploitation at first, but it soon shows itself to be a study in loneliness, and how difficult verbalizing what you want from the person you love can be.
The Duke of Burgundy is not an easy film; at times it tumbles so deeply into dreamlike states that I lost track of what was real and what wasn’t. However, it’s deeply rewarding and surprisingly beautiful. Most movie romances spend so much time setting characters up that we know nothing about their relationship after the “I Love You”. The Duke of Burgundy is about two people working their way through that initial attraction and fall into romance. The focus on BDSM is not to titillate, but to emphasize the significance of communication and compromise in a relationship, and the emotional consequences when one partner ignores or disregards the needs of another. In that regard, it is one of the most affecting and fascinating films I’ve seen this year.