It’s likely that the obscure films that have influenced Peter Strickland’s hallucinatory and deliciously-offbeat S&M tale The Duke Of Burgundy will be unfamiliar to many of its viewers: the English director may have drawn from some better-known sources for his third film, such as Buñuel’s Belle De Jour or Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant, but the audience is less likely to spot the links to other European works like Morgiana, Mothlight, A Virgin Among The Living Dead or Mano Destra. As with his previous film, 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland has drawn from a youth spent watching such offbeat delights in London’s arthouse cinemas, and the ambience and look of European sex/horror exploitation films of the 1970s is fastidiously re-created here, although before you start salivating onto your keyboard it must be pointed out that there is barely any sex or any horror to be found in this tale.
As with Berberian Sound Studio, knowledge of the esoteric, low budget output of prolific directors like Jess Franco isn’t actually a pre-requisite; I managed to enjoy The Duke Of Burgundy, despite being aware that a host of cine-literate nods to continental works of yore were flying over my head and away into the ether. It’s an interesting curio, for example, that Monica Swinn – a regular in the 1970s films of Franco and Jean Rollin – has a cameo here as a frowning old lady, but knowing this is hardly likely to enhance your viewing experience in any meaningful way. Strickland brings his audience into this retro and fussily stylish world with great skill, once again exuding confidence with a brisk and expertly-crafted period title sequence, the atmosphere immediately established and later repeatedly enhanced by the breathy, psychedelic folk of Cat’s Eyes (Faris Badwan and Rachel Zeffira delivering a standout Françoise Hardy-style soundtrack that is itself well worth purchasing).
The film’s milieu is unusual, the air rarified. Though it’s initially unclear, Strickland is dropping us as spectators into the seemingly long-term relationship of entomologist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen, best known for her work on the TV show Borgen) and partner Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna, previously seen in Berberian Sound Studio). They live in a grand house that is decorated with period furniture and filled with carefully-arranged displays of moths and butterflies. It seems as if there are no men in their town; there aren’t any in the film, anyway, and the ‘Duke’ of the title is a reference to a type of butterfly found in western Europe. They cycle to serious, local lectures about their favourite subject, during which markings and behaviour patterns and noises are discussed in great detail by similarly-dressed lepidopterists (Strickland even cheekily inserts a couple of mannequins into one crowd scene in order to highlight the uniformity while simultaneously paying homage to his favourite budget-conscious directors). In terms of their relationship they have clearly-defined dominant / submissive roles: Cynthia dresses in restrictive corsets and expensive-looking lingerie, and orders Evelyn to clean the study, wash her underwear, polish her boots and more.
Although these roles have been established for sexual pleasure the film cleverly plays with the balance of power in their relationship, and all is not as it first seems. Strickland’s film, in a nutshell, is concerned with the way in which the dynamic between Cynthia and Evelyn is gradually changing, slowly drifting towards an end with melancholic inevitability; Cynthia, emotionally weary and suffering from a bad back, wants nothing more than to be able to relax in comfy pyjamas for a day or two. It isn’t made explicitly clear, but it looks as if she doesn’t actually get any sexual gratification at all from their games, which are time-consuming and meticulously observed. Eveyln, meanwhile, apparently wishes to break encroaching boredom by introducing new S&M-related equipment and activities. Both characters are tiring of their routine, elements of which are cleverly repeated with the two leads incorporating slight differences in their performances, which has the effect of stripping certain activities of their initial sexiness and kinkiness. Even a vaguely shocking act like Cynthia urinating on Evelyn (off-camera) is turned into something resembling ordinary workaday drudgery as we see Cynthia regularly downing glasses of water in preparation for the act.
Though it highlights mundanity, the repetition of the daily role-playing also lends the film a trance-like, hypnotic feel, aided by numerous duplicated shots of bursting soap bubbles and stills of displayed butterflies and moths (the director is eager to repeatedly make the connection between the couple’s relationship and the life cycle of the insects). As well as certain images, distinctive sounds come and go and come back again – and this is a film that sounds fantastic, it must be said, as well as being one that is visually rewarding – and it’s hard to resist The Duke Of Burgundy‘s powerful, trippy otherworldliness. One moth-heavy, vaguely-nightmarish dream sequence in particular had me utterly transfixed, and I only became aware of the fact I had been lost in the film for several minutes when Strickland suddenly snapped back to a ‘reality’ I’d completely forgotten about.
While it may sound pretentious and impenetrable, that certainly isn’t the case; there’s an odd streak of humour running through the film. The director’s opening and end credits, for example, contain a number of eccentricities, such as the inclusion of a ‘supplier of perfumes’, a ‘human toilet consultant’ and a seemingly-endless list of information about insects and field recordings, while there’s a hint of black comedy running through the work that indicates Strickland cannot keep a quirky sense of humour hidden away. That said, although his film is occasionally playful, it is never silly, and the strange, unusual mood is applied consistently.
It must also be said that those looking for cheap thrills had best look elsewhere; it may titillate, depending on your own tastes, but for a film that glances backwards in time to the rawer years of sexploitation there’s actually very little sex, and we mainly witness the couple’s tender moments in the bedroom after the sub-dom rituals for the day have finished. Elegant production design (Pater Sparrow), art direction (Renátó Cseh) and set decoration (Zsuzsa Mihalek) combine perfectly with the costumes by Andrea Flesch and the magnificent cinematography by Nicholas D. Knowland, who was also the DP on Berberian Sound Studio, to create a striking, aesthetically-pleasing work. Strickland gets fine performances out of his two leads, and wastes not a single second of screen time: his intoxicating third film is a sexy, sensory, swirly, psychedelic delight.
Directed by: Peter Strickland.
Written by: Peter Strickland.
Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, Fatma Mohamed, Monica Swinn.
Cinematography: Nic Knowland.
Editing: Mátyás Fekete.
Music: Cat’s Eyes.
Running Time: 104 minutes.