The Things We Do for Love
By Michael Koresky

The Duke of Burgundy
Peter Strickland, U.K., IFC Films/Sundance Selects

[This review is lousy with spoilers.]

Sex is comedy, though of the pitch-black variety, in Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy. In his sumptuously brooding follow-up to his 2013 anti-thriller Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland peers into the cavernous recesses of a couple’s fraught sadomasochistic romance. The film is besotted with the idea that physical pleasure is often entirely psychological in nature; in centering on this irony The Duke of Burgundy locates and visualizes a psychic split. Perhaps the even greater irony of the film is that, despite its trappings of decadence and its exploitation-cinema reference points, the women at its center are neither aberrant nor particularly fanciful creations. The somewhere-in-Europe setting is unusual and almost otherworldly, the time period is unspecified, and the details of the affair between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) initially read as abnormal—an exaggeratedly ritualized romance that makes love inseparable from fetish—but the film goes on to normalize these two women to an almost absurd degree. What turns out to be most purposefully discomfiting about Strickland’s film, perhaps, is how indecently average its characters turn out to be.

When we first meet the two women, Evelyn appears to be an unassertive, mouse-like housekeeper, freshly arrived at the shabby-posh home of her employer, Cynthia, who reads as imperious, casually nasty, and comfortable in her own skin and cocoon-like miniskirts. The older woman seems at ease as she lords over the meek maid, slowly turning pages in a book while sensually eating a bonbon and letting its crisp wrapper flutter to the floor by Evelyn, who is scrubbing on her hands and knees. After Evelyn cleans the house’s dusty, studiously appointed rooms in a succession of shots (which, on a second viewing are clearly taking place over a number of days), we start to pick up on undercurrents of eroticism: an enforced foot rub, Evelyn spying on her undressing mistress through a keyhole, teasing close-ups of sudsy lingerie soaking in the bath. Soon, Cynthia, displeased by some minor infraction, begins to talk of punishments. If her rich-bitch routine seems well-rehearsed, that’s because it is: as it turns out she is quite literally playing a role, one that has been scripted out, nearly word for word, on immaculate note cards, by Evelyn.

It is thus quickly thrown into sharp relief just who is actually in control here. The games of bondage and control enacted by demanding sub Evelyn and reluctant dom Cynthia are simply the more direct, surface expressions of the power struggles that lie dormant in all twosomes. Evelyn wants not only to be loved but to be owned, controlled, and used—a fantasy life that can also function as a practical, everyday one. Though she doesn’t express it at first, Cynthia is more agnostic about this role-play, yet she seems willing to go with it as long as it pleases and satisfies Evelyn.

There’s a lot of insight in how Strickland portrays this relationship—so much so that it’s unfortunate that his overly ornate, brocaded cinematic style threatens to obscure the women in the frame, as though an intricate yet overly tangled scrim of cobwebs were constantly blocking our vision. In form and shape the film functions as homage to a rarefied type of European seventies schlock; Strickland has professed his admiration for the sexploitation films of Spanish director Jess Franco. The film’s nominal connection to such titles as Vampyros Lesbos, Daughter of Dracula, and She Killed in Ecstasy notwithstanding, such cinephilic reference points may threaten to wrest conversation around the film away from its ideas on sex, love, and fidelity and into a more airlessly cinephilic realm. Similarly, its insistently eccentric aesthetic approach to the material (montages, dreams within dreams, one major avant-garde digression in seeming tribute to Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight) sometimes hobbles rather than elucidates its sophisticated screenplay. Kinky but never salacious, The Duke of Burgundy is a penetrating dissection of an imbalanced relationship before it shifts into being a surreal, teasingly nightmarish evocation of that imbalance, and it’s more fascinating as the former than the latter.

Lending the film its central visual motif is the fact that Cynthia is a seasoned entomologist and Evelyn, who seems to want to follow in her footsteps, is an amateur one. The house where most of the film’s action takes place is decorated with pinned butterflies behind glass, as well as the occasional, more unsettling sight of half-opened pupae. A metaphor for a relationship still in its larval stage? Who knows? All these spread-winged insects seem to function mostly as literal repositories for their obsessions. For these women, as for so many of us, even our work is a fetish. The books Cynthia reads are all about bugs. At night Cynthia pumps out the high-pitched chirps of various species on audio speakers. During their off hours, we see Cynthia and Evelyn attending talks on butterfly species (one of which, though never mentioned, gives the film its seemingly inexplicable title) at a lecture hall—the only interior location in the film other than the house. Their interests and preoccupations overwhelm them and encroach upon their space, as they do the frame. This gives Strickland license to make a fetish of the film itself, and while the baroque preciousness of the last third grows tiresome it nevertheless indicates the consistent cinematic vision of someone in firm charge of his material. (It also speaks, following the similarly structured Berberian Sound Studio, to Strickland’s tendency to allow a well-wrought, character-driven scenario to float off into phantasmal ether.)

The film’s softcore depiction of sex—the women’s naked encounters are always somehow mediated, whether via prismatic camera effects or layered images and sounds—is far less sensational than its gradual uncovering of the terms and negotiations on which the relationship is based. In an early scene, Strickland perfectly encapsulates the simmering push-pull that defines these two. As they lie in bed, Cynthia gets Evelyn off, with one hand clearly masturbating her under the sheets and below the frame; the former is turning her on with improvised “dirty” talk about how displeased she is with her. The idea that Evelyn can only be titillated by the inference that their relationship is somehow frayed, that Evelyn is unhappy with her, is so counterintuitive it’s nearly absurdist—and Knudsen’s responses are very funny. Evelyn is clearly in the driver’s seat; only within this fantasy scenario is Cynthia actually the one with power. “Try to have more conviction in your voice next time,” chastises Evelyn after she finishes.

Later, in a centerpiece sequence, a character credited only as The Carpenter (Fatima Mohamed) arrives at the house dressed in a black cape and wielding measuring tape. After she literally sizes Evelyn up, she goes on to discuss over tea with the two women the coffin-like bed Evelyn wishes her to construct and which Cynthia has promised to buy for her upcoming birthday. The dainty drawing-room conversation that ensues between our heroines and this creator of high-end S&M equipment situates the film in some sort of fantastical realm where such fetishes are not only openly discussed but perhaps even a way of life: the Carpenter talks about having built a similar piece of furniture for a female neighbor down the road. With such sexual proclivities normalized within this crucially all-female world—no man is ever seen or mentioned in the film—The Duke of Burgundy becomes an alternate universe of sorts, one defined less by movie lore than our normally unspoken fantasy lives. There’s something scandalously liberating about hearing the elegantly coiffed Carpenter offer the women the possibility of a home furnishing called a “human toilet”—we don’t find out exactly what that is, but our imaginations run wild, especially when, along with a turned-off Cynthia, we watch through a window as the Carpenter makes descriptive hand gestures in relating its usage to Evelyn.

This scene represents the film both at its wittiest and at its most irksomely adorable. In an odd byproduct of such sexual openness, the more Strickland normalizes the characters’ relationship the funnier it becomes, and thus the more we can snicker at the women’s perceived oddness. Of course we should be able to laugh at the film’s extravagant scenario and ominous eroticism—this is a tongue-in-cheek movie, after all (dig that ticklish “perfume” credit during the opening credits). Fittingly, The Duke of Burgundy may ultimately all be a tease, both in terms of its sensuality and even its form—the last act enters a dark realm of unquenchable longing that constantly hints at a horror scenario that never comes. Totemic and desirous and ultimately harmless, it’s a true fetish film.