The Duke Of Burgundy (2014)

Review first published by FilmLand Empire

His first feature, Katalin Varga (2009), is a rape/revenge story shot in Transylvania with exclusively Hungarian dialogue. His second feature, the metacinematic mystery Berberian Sound Studio (2012), is set in Seventies Italy and uses the grammar and tropes of giallo to explore the misogynies in and around an unseen horror film undergoing endless, infernal postproduction. Which is to say that writer/director Peter Strickland likes to inhabit the outermost limits of genre – and his latest, The Duke Of Burgundy, is no exception.

The title itself involves mystification and a certain amount of misdirection, but nonetheless does offer cryptic advertisement of what is to come, even if, like the film itself, it requires some deciphering. It is a title containing a different kind of ‘title’, suggestive of male hierarchy and period potentacy. Perhaps significantly, though, the actual Duchy of Burgundy ceased to exist when its last Duke, Charles the Bold, died without a male heir in 1477, leaving Louis XI to dissolve the territories of the Duchy itself into France, while the now empty title of Duchess of Burgundy was claimed by Charles’ only daughter Mary. One might, therefore, see encoded in this title a history of male extinction and (partial) female succession, foreshadowing the all-female milieu of the film itself. There may be a ‘duke’ in the title, but there are no male characters at all in The Duke Of Burgundy itself. Rather, it is set in an unnamed European rural village whose only inhabitants appear to be adult women who, when they are not attending to their household chores or Sapphic scenarios (often simultaneously), devote all their time and efforts to the careful study of local invertebrate fauna.

This interest in insect life is also adumbrated by the title – for ‘Duke of Burgundy’ is the common name for Hamearis lucina, a species of fritillary-like butterfly that makes an appearance in the film, and is listed alongside all the other humans and lepidoptera in the closing credits. Indeed, like Imamura Shohei’s The Insect Woman (1963), Teshigahara Hiroshi’s Woman Of The Dunes (1964) and Philip Haas’ Angels and Insects (1995), Strickland’s film takes a methodically entomological approach to its scrutiny of human experience. Under its microscope are two women whose entomomania is matched by other obsessions. As the film opens, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) arrives at the house of the older Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen, familiar from television’s Borgen), and is subjected to a series of cruel demands that combine cleaning with humiliation, and ultimately sexual subjugation.

This perverse, fetishistic scenario will turn out to be just that: a scenario – scripted, costumed, marked out and played by these two lovers daily. If, in this sadomasochistic exchange, Evelyn at first appears to be the put-upon servant, she has in fact designed each stage herself to serve her own desires, with Cynthia in thrall to the younger woman’s meticulously plotted rôle play – so that, after a while, it proves no less difficult for the viewer to distinguish submissive from dominant as for some of the local women to distinguish different species of butterfly. Each time the scenario is replayed, it subtly metamorphoses under both our own shifting perspective on events and the innovations and improvisations that these paramours introduce to their routine. This is Groundhog Day (1993) as filtered through the visual language of Jess Franco or Jean Rollin’s erotic oeuvre – a saucy theme and its minor (but significant) variations that together modulate the ambiguous and ever-changing dynamics of these women’s evolving relationship.

All the laces and leather boots, stockings and safe words, Euro-BDSM and urolagnia (two “human toilet consultants” are listed in the closing credits) might at first come across as niche kink, even be a little alienating for some viewers, but as is the case with all romances, habit breeds familiarity (as well, sometimes, as contempt). By focusing on the routine nature of these erotic escapades, the wearying drudgery of their repetition, the intricate give and take of their negotiation, and the very practical aspects of their maintenance, Strickland takes a rather outré form of sexual play, and turns it into something comically banal and utterly recognisable to anyone in a long-term relationship. The miracle involved in using a range of paraphilias as flashily attractive camouflage for a close study of quotidian domestic rituals cannot be overstated.

Close study is key here. For in a house festooned with butterfly display cases, viewing paraphernalia, diagrams and academic writings, Cynthia and Evelyn are exhibited for us like the objects of their own research. “I can change,” declares Evelyn – and, surrounded with the recorded sounds of insects, even overwhelmed and absorbed (at least in their dreams) by butterfly swarms, this couple does undergo together a metamorphosis whose phases, marked by transitions between ordinary and ornate clothing, by Evelyn’s increasing wish to be encased, and by their dark period of hibernation before the happy release of summer, mimic the life cycle of butterflies. Indeed, cycles (of a different kind) also figure prominently as Cynthia and Evelyn’s chosen mode of transport, in a film which, much like the complex creatures that it celebrates, rings its own changes before circling back to exactly where it started.

On the other hand, there appears to be no reproduction in this hermetic, single-sex world. The old age of their neighbour Lorna (played by Franco stalwart Monica Swinn), Cynthia’s own physical wear and tear (“it’s all downhill from here”), the presence of showroom dummies padding out the all-female audience at Cynthia’s entomological lectures, and the complete absence of children, all point to a way of life in inevitable decline. And so The Duke Of Burgundy, like butterflies themselves, is there to be enjoyed not just for its undeniable aesthetic pleasures, but also for its sense of fragile ephemerality. Despite all the characters’ attempts at renewal, Strickland’s fabulous foray into an antiquated mode of Seventies cinema comes complete with a haunting fin de siècle feel that is, after all, entirely in keeping with its title.

© Anton Bitel