Review: The Duke of Burgundy
It’s unfortunate that The Duke of Burgundy is being released in the same month as a more mainstream film purporting to be erotic and thrilling. That film doesn’t deserve even to be named in the same review as this English masterpiece, and thankfully time will quickly and forever separate the two.
This taut film by Peter Strickland makes the seemingly bizarre familiar, uniting the viewer to perhaps an alien world with staggering emotion. The Duke of Burgundy, which is in fact a type of butterfly in England, brings to the screen the curious relationship between two female entomologists; that is, their dominant-subservient relationship.
There are no men in this film, and there are no indications of time, or really place. Set only at an idyllic countryside escape and occasionally a lecture hall, we follow closely the love and dedication between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), a relationship which is rarely as it seems.
To start, we see the two as literally master and servant, as Evelyn tends to Cynthia’s manor, cleaning and sorting while being particularly scolded by an exacting and cruel matron. As it is, those are the wishes of the tender Evelyn. And so we are guided carefully but decidedly into their private endeavors.
With tenderness and genuine emotion, we can’t help but be swept in a bond that finds Evelyn far more in control than it initially seems. She asks for Cynthia to be verbally cruel, to make wait and whimper, to make her work, and indeed be submissive in bed. The eroticism, however, doesn’t come from blatant sex or nudity (gratuitous or otherwise is not found here), but instead a unique confluence of glances, sighs, voyeurism, direction, and desire, both spoken and tacit.
It’s so effective in fact, that your reaction to the phrase ‘human toilet’ won’t be far as drastic as you would assume. Perhaps shocking at times, nothing here is made to be a joke; Strickland doesn’t exoticize or demean their relationship. In fact, once the viewer becomes completely a part of their world, we begin to see that what has built their partnership, as well as the cracks that start to form in their foundation, are completely familiar and in fact mundane.
That may be the most winning part of the film, which also employs beautiful cinematography and some hypnotic montages involving butterflies. Strickland carefully constructs this specific world, devoid of men and machines, that moves at a lazy summer’s pace. Disciplined and coy, The Duke of Burgundy is about sophisticated love, which rests right next to perversion.