The Duke of Burgundy tells the story of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), two ornithologists. Evelyn is the younger of the two women, and we observe as she pleasantly arrives at a mansion in an unspecified country at an indistinct time with exclusive travel by bicycle. Evelyn is immediately put to work by the slightly older Cynthia; cleaning her floors and then being forcefully persuaded into providing a foot massage…
I will start off by saying, this is definitely not a film for everyone. If there’s one thing I’ve learned to expect from a Peter Strickland film, it’s the unexpected. To begin with, it is not clear that Evelyn and Cynthia are actually in a real, long-term relationship. Peter Strickland, (the director and writer), cleverly starts the film with Cynthia and Evelyn in the middle of one of their ‘role-plays’, and as the film progresses, the audience becomes acquainted with their over-particular sexual arrangement. If their routine comes across as well-rehearsed, that’s because it is. And as it turns out, she is quite literally playing a role, one that has been scripted out, word for word, on immaculate note cards, by Evelyn. But before you question this, it is no Fifty Shades of Grey wannabe. Instead, it is a surreal insight on a loving relationship and the lengths in which people will go to for the ones they love. Their dynamic seems simple at first: Cynthia is the dominant character, Evelyn is the ‘servant’. But as the narrative unfolds, what seems obvious about their power dynamics gets flipped on its head.
This isn’t a film that’s about lesbian lovers or fantasies. However strangely it might present itself, it’s about how emotionally challenging a long-term relationship can be, and how, for any relationship to work, people have to entertain each other’s interests, even if it means dressing up in over the top lingerie and role-playing after a long evening of giving lectures on butterflies… And perhaps most of all, the film mirrors how demanding we can be with regards to getting hold of what we want, as if the world revolves around our immediate needs and desires at all times.
The film is also an astonishing study in style, seemingly existing in several time periods at once. The clothes could belong anywhere from the 1940’s to the present. As Cynthia specialises in crickets, the house is filled with beautiful framed specimens of butterflies, moths and their relatives. It is visually enthralling and a treat to the ears. Audio plays a crucial role here. It matches up immaculately to the complex visuals, with a range from high heel clicks on hard wood floors, heavy breathing, music by Cat’s Eye, including the purring of a Siamese cat, and the buzzing of insects. The soundtracks fit perfectly, and as of the music overall, it simply can’t be faulted. The performances of the two lead actors cannot be praised enough, especially Sidse Babett Knudsen. There is in fact no nudity, which makes the film all the more clever. The Duke of Burgundy is very much on the psychological side and will most definitely leave you pondering in thought. The fact that this film was made by a man is certainly remarkable. I look forward to seeing more from Peter Strickland.
To conclude, it is one of the best films of 2015 so far, and one of the best films I’ve ever seen about love. It’s not the kind of film to have on in the background while you tidy your room, The Duke of Burgundy requires your full attention. I highly recommend this for anyone who appreciates beautiful cinematic art. It’s a feast for the eyes and the soul.