LFF 2014: The Duke of Burgundy

Janz Anton-Iago

All hail Peter Strickland. At last, a new film that magnificently refuses to harken to your sad, mediocre, low-grade, commercial expectations. To sum up his third feature in a mere few words is a frightful mission, but this we’re certain of – it’s a mighty, majestic ‘fuck you’ to linearity and convention. In this day and age where everything has to be signposted, The Duke of Burgundy defiantly obfuscates, teases and mystifies with its cyclical narrative and dream-logic sequences – all ever so elusive that perhaps only an holy alliance between cinematic messiahs David Lynch, Peter Greenaway, Luis Buñuel and Rainer Werner Fassbinder could ever produce. And yet it’s no art-school hybrid – it’s an honest-to-goodness sensory experience specifically calibrated to intoxicate the eyes and seduce the mind, with Strickland melding vintage aesthetics with a refreshingly anti-modernist sensibilities au fait with 70’s cinema.

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The Duke of Burgundy defiantly obfuscates, teases and mystifies with its cyclical narrative and dream-logic sequences – all ever so elusive that perhaps only an holy alliance between cinematic messiahs Lynch, Greenaway, Buñuel and Fassbinder could ever produce.

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Even the title itself seems deliberately designed to mislead us. I’d be lying if I wasn’t half-expecting the titular duke to appear halfway through to make sense of its title – but no, Strickland is way more ingenuous than my foolish (and literal) expectations. Turns out The Duke of Burgundy, in entomology, refers to the breed of butterflies where the female species are physically superior to the males (the former have six legs and wider wing span compared to that of the nearly-extinct males). In Strickland’s alternate, exclusive world bereft of male presence, women dominate every inch of the picture. Patriarchy has been wiped out, and the female sex has been left to recalibrate the social dynamics reminiscent to what Fassbinder did in his elegiac The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Here, Strickland obliterates the feminist debate (and not just Beyoncé’s “Who Run The World? Girls!” kind of debate) and strictly locates womanhood under a microscope (all gorgeously draped in high-end couture fashion and the occasional lingerie) and subsequently identifying role-play and the nature of sadomasochism between the same sex. Despite its preceding kink factor, femininity and love take audacious forms – sexual, sardonic, passive, dominant, earnest and purely fathomless.

The Duke of Burgundy

The love shared between Chiara D’Anna’s housekeeper-cum-slave Evelyn and Sidse Babett Knudsen’s aristocratic dominatrix Cynthia is unabashedly fetishistic, but it’s love nonetheless. Whether that means pissing on an open mouth (unseen), being locked up in a trunk (insane!) or drawn into a dark crotch for an implied psychosexual orgasm – Strickland keeps shifting roles and personifications, perpetually curious as to who gives and takes, who dominates and acquiesce, who seizes and sacrifices in this relationship, or any human relationship for that matter. Metamorphosis is a key metaphor here – feelings and emotions transform, takes flight and beauty and then subsequently wears down. Cleverly, Strickland’s screenplay goes back and forth through various stages – reflecting the larva-pupa-adult levels of consciousness often to morbidly funny results. Such approach feels not only adept but entirely appropriate, allowing us to examine the sorrowful reality of Evelyn and Cynthia (played to extraordinary perfection by both actresses) and their need to invent, invigorate and inject life to their mortal affections. Viewed from that perspective, this may be the strangest, most beautiful love stories you’ll ever see.