DIRECTOR: Peter Strickland
WRITER: Peter Strickland
STARS: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Monica Swinn, Chiara D’Anna
COUNTRY: United Kingdom
PLOT: A woman who studies butterflies and moths tests the limits of her relationship with her lover.
The Duke of Burgundy has a cast of only women. Even the Duke referred to in the films title is not a man, but rather a species of butterfly. Cynthia is a lepidopterist, an expert on moths and butterflies and the film begins when her (apparent) maid, Evelyn, arrives to clean her house. Cynthia is cold, and harsh with Evelyn; “did I tell you that you could sit?”. But then things get more abusive as this turns into a sexual power play. We see a few examples of how Evelyn is dominated by the older and more refined Cynthia before it is revealed that this is not an overbearing employer taking advantage of her staff, but a scripted sexual adventure between consenting lovers.
As the games are replayed to the finest detail, Evelyn becomes more and more dependant on them for gratification and starts to up the ante by bringing a large chest into the bedroom and asking to be locked in it overnight. But Cynthia is starting to grow weary of the games and yearns for a simpler, more traditional relationship. This is where the films starts to ask questions of the viewer. What happens when one party desires excess and the other normality? Can you change your sexual desires to suit a partner or are they too far engrained?
The Duke of Burgundy was released at the same time as 50 Shades of Grey, but Peter Strickland has written and directed an intriguing film in a way that is overtly sexual, without resorting to titillation. There is no nudity as he uses classical lingerie and beautiful surroundings to convey more sensuality than a dozen similar films. Stickland has also drawn out some magnificent central performances from Sidse Babett Knudsen as Cynthia and Chiara D’Anna as Evelyn. D’Anna in particular is bewitching as the butter-wouldn’t-melt driving force behind the twisted games.
Many will find The Duke of Burgundy overly arty (I myself was a little turned off by the pointless scenes of butterflies), and too slow paced, but I found it visually beautiful and in places quite entrancing. I will certainly look out for Peter Strickland’s other works with interest.