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Duke of Burgundy - distortion and embellishment

by George Heron. Published Fri 06 Mar 2015 12:09

Peter Strickland sends a visual message out to everyone that he is one of the best British film directors today with his latest surreal effort about a sado-masochistic relationship: The Duke of Burgundy.

The name refers to a species of butterfly, the so-called dominant member of the relationship in question being a lepidopterist.

Frames are frozen in the opening titles akin to a 70s French romantic drama and filtered with vibrant colours focusing on Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) and the nature that surrounds her whilst she is riding her bike. But where is she riding to?

It appears she is going to work as a housekeeper for a very strict lady named Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Her first job is to clean the study, where there are thousands of caught butterflies stored and displayed. Evelyn is more absorbed in these beautiful corpses as opposed to the job at hand.

Matters come to a head when Evelyn fails to carry out the task of doing the laundry. A piece of lingerie ended up unwashed and she didn’t notice. Cynthia is extremely angry and Evelyn must be punished. She is taken to the bathroom, the door closes and we cannot see what is happening. Cynthia says to Evelyn “Open your mouth!” You can hear water flowing and it is aurally evident that Evelyn is choking on it.

A loving relationship blossoms but not what you think. The relationship dynamics are much more complex. The dominant force is scripted by the submissive. Evelyn loves Cynthia with all her heart but wants perfection. An intimate orgasm scene where Evelyn wants Cynthia to “be nasty” to her verbally starts with a click of the fingers to stop Cynthia snoring and ends with a critical appraisal that it must be done with more conviction next time.

Strickland not only puts you right in the middle of this bizarre relationship, he distorts and embellishes it by only showing reflections from windows, by focusing on natural light and twisting it to make surreal, kaleidoscopic visions. Long shots of Cynthia’s laundry soaking in the sink, the suds shining like crystals over the lingerie, the sensual sounds of the butterflies. The music by alt-pop band Cat’s Eyes adds pleasingly to the ethereal atmosphere with a bit of progressive rock subtly thrown in.

Considering this is an 18, it’s not very graphic in comparison to Nymphomaniac, for example. The routine of the relationship is key more than the sex acts themselves, which are mostly implied. There are aspects that anyone can identify with whatever their inclination. We’ve all had lovers who can be critical, who you try your best for because you love them. Is it all worth the bother?

D’anna and Babett Knudsen are mesmerising as the two lovers. D’anna effortlessly combining an innocent look with a mischievous personality. She’s only been in movies for a few years and she’s a natural. Babett Knudsen is star of Danish drama Borgen and nails her part perfectly with her assertive voice that can also be very tender and loving.

In short, a brilliant film that will have you transfixed for under two hours. Watch out for the mannequins!


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