Hot on the heels of his lyrical horror flick Berberian Sound Studio (2012), Peter Strickland returns in fine form with his most tender picture, The Duke of Burgundy (2014). With an all-female cast, sex politics and the limits of love are put under the microscope for examination here. There’s nothing but poetry in each shot; Strickland has crafted for his viewers another thoroughly rich and engrossing world, so familiar in sight but unknown in time and place. This film is destined to become another landmark in cinema, as its already sure to establish Strickland as one of the most effective directors working today. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is a lepidopterist, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) is her assistant and lover.
The women live together in a countryside mansion in a community of only women, many of whom share Cynthia’s passion for butterflies. Cynthia and Evelyn have been together for quite some time and it appears that, at Evelyn’s insistence, the couple are trying out some new dynamics. Evelyn wishes to be dominated by Cynthia. She sets out tasks for her to do, such as making Evelyn fold the laundry and clean the house, all under the watchful eye of Cynthia. But Cynthia is unaccustomed to such manners and often finds that Evelyn is really the one dominating her. Soon, the limits of the relationship become frayed as the power structure fractures between the loving couple. Perhaps he most intriguing aspect of The Duke of Burgundy is the fact that it’s a film free of male characters and concerns.
What results in this narrative construction is something wholly celebratory of the female body and mind: the possibilities to delve into the female psyche, especially where desire is concerned, seem to be vast and various. In this respect, both Knudsen and D’Anna lay themselves positively bare in their performances. Their faces seek to hide nothing here, adding layers of meaning and description to the story. Their words may be spare, but their thousand-yard-stares say more than enough. Every moment is electrified when they interact. The sexual politics may circumnavigate sapphic parameters and yet, they can’t truly be categorised heteronormatively either. Rather, the relationship between Cynthia and Evelyn can best be understood in terms of power, but even that dynamic becomes quite muddled the more The Duke of Burgundy unspools on screen. The women push and pull towards and away from each other, trying to maintain a firm grasp on their relationship when things seem to function outside of the norm. Herein lies the rub: can a couple survive when the comforts of dynamics and personalities are suddenly deconstructed? Strickland’s world, while shrouded in mystery until the very last frame, is one that is simultaneously nostalgic in rendering yet fresh in execution.
Allie Gemmill | @alliegem