Peter Strickland’s follow-up to the impressive Berberian Sound Studio is a strange and methodical study of a relationship under strain. We are introduced to Evelyn and Cynthia, the former apparently a servant to her cold lepidopterist boss, dutifully doing her chores, being found wanting, and suffering abuse. But it slowly emerges that this is an elaborate dominant/submissive game, in which both are playing their parts. The supposedly submissive Evelyn is actually in control, creating the scenarios that Cynthia has to precisely act out, selecting the clothes that her ‘master’ wears. Evelyn seems to be deliriously happy with the scenario at first, but for Cynthia the strain of maintaining the performance is beginning to show. As the days repeat the cycle of servitude, transgression and punishment, cracks start to form in the façade, and it seems inevitable that something will break.
If a lesbian sub/dom two-hander already seems to be a singular enough cinematic prospect, this does not begin to prepare you for the oddness of Strickland’s treatment. We are in an unnamed location; although it was shot in Hungary, British accents dominate, and the trappings of the story suggest a rural home counties university town. We are adrift in time, too, though the technology, dress and pastiche title sequence suggest that it is set in the 60s-70s. There appear to be no men, and the evening’s entertainment consists of lectures about butterflies, moths and crickets, which are attended by immaculately styled ladies, and the occasional shop window dummy. The suggestion is that everybody in this world is in a similar relationship to Cynthia and Evelyn’s: the services of a specialist bondage furniture maker are in high demand, and Cynthia suspects her lover of betrayal in polishing another woman’s boots. This appears to be an attempt to allegorise and abstract the nature of all relationships. The Duke Of Burgundy is focused on the moments where passion gives way to obligation and duty, and the demands made on a couple as they try to keep each other happy begin to eat away at the affection they are trying to maintain. It’s a film about performance and the people we have to be.
It’s also a film of very precise and measured derangement. The production design, wardrobe (by Andrea Flesch) and set dressing seem to have been agonised over, creating a specific, very sensual world of patterned tile and wallpaper, pencil skirts and corsets, silk, mushrooms and endless mounted butterflies. The soundtrack is an extraordinary thing: the music by Cat’s Eyes ranges from dreamy folk to near Morricone operatics, supplemented by foregrounded foley work and amplified insect noise. As with Berberian Sound Studio, there is a growing sense of insanity, of reality slipping its moorings. The editing brings to mind the work of Nic Roeg and Donald Cammel, cross-cutting from scene to scene, repeating visual motifs that all culminate in an extended nightmarish sequence where Cynthia’s anxieties burst into a riot of moth wings and horror movie symbolism. In its emphasis on power shifts it recalls Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1964). In its dreamy look it brings to mind the 70s euro-sleaze of Rollin and Franco.
But all of this would be worthless without the committed work of Sidse Babett Knudsen as Cynthia and Chiara D’Anna as Evelyn, both giving performances of performances for much of the running time, leaving the moments when the masks slip to display the increasing desperation and dissatisfaction, the fleeting moments of joy. D’Anna’s glowing face as she waits expectantly for chastisement is funny and affecting, Knudsen’s slow breakdown as she fails to deliver the requisite level of bitch is quietly devastating. At 104 minutes it overstays its welcome a little, although it is both amusing and entrancing. It is hermetically sealed, and some will find it suffocating, too mannered and strange for proper engagement, but Strickland is aiming for something ambitious and transcendent, and pretty much gets there. Pay attention at the end for some of the oddest credits you’re ever likely to read.
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