The Duke of Burgundy Dir. Peter Strickland

[IFC Films; 2015]

Styles: drama, romance, erotica
Others: Berberian Sound Studio, Katalin Varga

Easily one of the most visually sumptuous films of a still young 2015 (the opening credit sequence alone is more striking than many of the big-budget Hollywood pictures of the last decade), Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy is, at heart, a simple love story about two people trying to make a relationship work. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) lives in an elaborate country estate and dabbles in the study of Lepidoptera — which provides plenty of opportunity to cut to images of butterflies for both metaphorical and aesthetic reasons. Her lover, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), doubles as her housekeeper. Although we initially perceive the relationship as a domineering, one-sided endeavor, it is soon revealed (through repetition, a Strickland trademark) the relationship may not be so clear-cut.

Colors and patterns of the rooms and furniture, as well as the architecture of the house, provide a direct connection to the film’s insect inspirations. Lights cast a warm glow on Cynthia and Evelyn, keeping us acutely aware that we the viewers are as much voyeurs as those looking at the butterflies in a display case. Like the intricate designs found on a butterfly, each image Strickland presents us with has multiple meanings — not to mention tips of the hat to 70s erotica and references to that other great of Lepidoptera cinema, Stan Brakhage’s (Mothlight.). And when Cynthia emerges from her dress as Evelyn spies through a keyhole, the feeling is distinctly that of a caterpillar emerging from the chrysalis into something new, beautiful, raw, and exposed.

Evelyn relishes the punishment doled out by her lover and pushes the boundaries of what their relationship can handle. It would be easy to navigate into the territory of schlock or exploitation with this material, but Strickland’s obsessive control of each movement, each image repetition, and the tenderness with which he treats the relationship between Cynthia and Evelyn, renders it one of the most honest love stories of recent years. If you are looking for a film about an unconventional relationship, forget Hollywood’s bombastic and desperate attempt to go mainstream with the subject (50 Shades of Grey) and watch Peter Strickland’s infinity more interesting and honest film. If Berberian Sound Studio announced Strickland as a talent to watch, The Duke of Burgundy proves he is one of the most singular and unconstrained filmmakers working today, a master of manipulating visuals and sound, who never forgets his characters along the way.

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