The Duke of Burgundy
Review by Richard S He
British director Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy follows two women, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), who are obsessed with the scientific study of butterflies – and each other. In their remote European villa, free from the trappings of modern life, they spend their days enacting elaborate fantasies of dominance and submission. The older Cynthia plays the cruel headmistress; Evelyn is her inattentive, doe-eyed maid in desperate need of discipline – or so it seems. Their role-playing is sexual in nature, but it consumes their waking life. Soon, there’s no release, even in sleep.
The Duke of Burgundy is as meticulously designed as Strickland’s last film, Berberian Sound Studio (2013), but it’s not a horror film – nor is it an erotic thriller. Both genres are about the build and release of tension, whether it’s by murder or orgasm. But what if the climax never comes? Strickland’s vision of rural Europe is heavenly, but his characters’ fantasies are constantly punctured by banal relationship squabbles. Money never seems to be a concern, but the women’s entire relationship becomes a one-way transaction.
To Cynthia and Evelyn, every word is a manipulation, every gesture a subtle demand for attention. Just like their constrictive corsets and garters, their relationship is tied up in so many knots and layers that the women lose all sense of self. How do you communicate with your partner when your sexual fetish is the exact opposite: denial of permission?
Evelyn is the submissive, but she writes their shared scenarios primarily for her own pleasure. Perversion comes less naturally to Cynthia. She indulges Evelyn out of unconditional love, but whether it’s bondage or golden showers, repetition becomes empty re-enactment. The more needy Evelyn becomes, the more compliant Cynthia is – which shatters the illusion. Simulated punishment becomes real cruelty. They’re constantly swapping psychologies. Neither they nor we know where to draw the line, but there’s no question it’s crossed, over and over again.
The Duke of Burgundy might be the least graphic sex film ever made. Shock value can provoke, but it’s the twisted love story that truly affects you. The characters dream of giant, fluttering moths’ wings, but even these operatic visions boil down to our basest human instincts.
For all its Victorian affectations, The Duke of Burgundy is pathologically modern. Love is fleeting; dysfunction is timeless. When your whole life is fantasy, not even safe words can save you.