The Duke of Burgundy
Directed by Peter Strickland
Opens January 23
Peter Strickland’s third feature, which I saw first at the Toronto film festival, is an initially confounding, and meticulously fashioned, attempt to take a story that 70s sexploitation films might have played for titillation, and make a genuine relationship drama about two people. The opening scenes lay down the rules for a playful master-servant relationship between a lepidopterist and her lover, before trickily letting masks slip here and there first to show that it’s not something on display for the viewer’s enjoyment, and then to flesh out how the dynamics actually work. But The Duke of Burgundy is also a film by the cinephiliac director of the Italo-horror wormhole Berberian Sound Studio, and so the world of these women does not exactly have all the trappings of reality: the couple live on a vined estate in a genteel land where local lectures about moths pack the house (with eerily similar dark beauties) and where a blond, caped traveling saleswoman caters to multiple clients requiring bed apparatuses allowing one partner to sleep in a drawer below the other.
There’s also a streak of wry humor, an awareness of the small absurd ways the couple’s daily routines are still accompanied by quotidian habits that don’t follow a specific script of a servant being punished for failing to do all the washing. But so too is there a poignancy to their relationship, as Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) especially tires of the roles and of Evelyn’s demands, making for a passive-aggressive dance through line readings and expectations. Ultimately, Chiara D’Anna as Evelyn feels a little less up to the task, though Strickland, too, zones out in his manner: moth montages, zooms-into-the-vortex, and kaleidscope effects suggest another turn into fugue states that, unlike Berberian, feel like a let-down.
A was-it-all-just-a-dream conceit glimmers in the film’s bookends (Evelyn perched, like a moth on a log, by a forest stream), not to mention a few odd details (such as the mannequins planted in the audience of a lecture). “Try to have more conviction next time,” Evelyn chides Cynthia after a session in bed, and it’s easy to accuse Strickland of hiding behind his obsessions, but even if he hasn’t re-discovered the sense of danger in his first feature, Katalin Varga, he’s crafted another wry story precisely about obsession.