Written and Directed by: Peter Strickland
Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D'Anna, and Monica Swinn
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"I love you. I know I have a different way of showing it. But I love you."
Peter Strickland is quickly becoming one of our most fascinating filmmakers, if only because his work defies classification. Genres have been bent, blended, and subverted for decades now, but Strickland manages to somehow go beyond this. In his hands, genre becomes more of a suggestion, part of an impressionist audio-visual collection that coheres into an unshakeable feeling. For example, Berberian Sound Studio is not a giallo but relies on that genre’s nightmare logic to create a similarly disorienting sensation. The Duke of Burgundy is even more unloosed from narrative obligations, committed instead to capturing the agony and ecstasy of relationships—and everything in between.
When we first meet Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), the latter meekly arrives at the former’s doorstep. Upon entrance, she’s immediately put to work performing various tasks, such as cleaning Cynthia’s room or washing her undergarments. It’s only after watching these two interact for several minutes that we realize they’re in a sadomasochistic relationship that sometimes also allows for more tender moments that sees the two bond over Cynthia’s fascination of butterflies. While odd to outsiders’ eyes, theirs is a relationship that flourishes in its own unique, or at least seems to.
“Nothing is quite what it seems” is a sentence from any number of horror movie loglines, but Strickland channels this sense of uncertainty and surprise throughout The Duke of Burgundy. As he reveals more about Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship, he also reveals cinema’s capacity for manipulation: our first impressions about these two off, perhaps wildly so, as our preconceptions of their shifting power dynamic changes with each new day, resulting in an uncertainty that captures how a deeply-involved relationship can be so disorienting that it defines your perception of reality.
In the case of Cynthia and Evelyn, theirs is a most unusual reality, one that actually borders on the surreal. To say that these two are each other’s world is accurate: while they are surrounded by neighbors in their cloistered villa, we see few glimpses of them throughout. Most of the action unfolds in their enormous, gorgeous home, and its opulent sheen operates as another layer of deception: like Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship, it’s odd, beautiful, and just slightly off-center. Outside, ivy engulfs the entranceway, lending it a fairy tale quality that goes awry once one wanders inside, where the couple keeps a box in which Evelyn likes to be locked at night.
Strickland doesn’t judge the couple for their kinky preoccupations, but it does become the subtle source of tension that grows between them. Slowly, the repetitive nature of this relationship becomes something like a vice—we watch these two perform the same routines and attend the same lectures on insects (with mannequins in attendance, a delightfully Lynchian touch that heightens the surrealism), only to realize that they’re being done with less conviction. A sustained, intricate plot isn’t of much concern for Strickland; rather, he’s more invested in having his audience observe Cynthia and Evelyn and notice these nuanced shifts in tone and mood. You begin to sense these two are drifting apart before it becomes explicit, and that’s a testament to how tightly wound The Duke of Burgundy is: it may not be a conventionally suspenseful film, but you find yourself hanging on every word, breath, and exchange between these two.
Knudsen and D’Anna’s performances are obviously instrumental in revealing the intricacies of this relationship. With these two constantly in each other’s orbit, it follows that one’s pull results in the other’s being similarly pulled, a dynamic that’s only heightened by their sub/dom relationship. Knudsen’s Cynthia is particularly intriguing at first because we’re not quite sure who she really is beneath the act this relationship mandates for her. Her icy, distant persona is so mannered that we’re surprised by her displays of warmth, much less the more heart-rending hints of jealousy and heartbreak that emerge. You can practically see the moment where this routine becomes motions to be dutifully trudged through out of obligation, and it’s in that moment that The Duke of Burgundy begins to dwell on a quiet, personal terror.
Because Strickland operates in such a nebulous genre zone, I can already hear the argument that The Duke of Burgundy isn’t a horror movie. I’m not altogether sure that I even disagree with that sentiment. However, it does capture the horrific, gut-wrenching feeling of a relationship slipping away. D’anna’s face once Evelyn begins to realize this is remarkable: in it, you can feel the angst and desperation of this moment, when you’ll do anything to repair and reclaim a relationship—including sacrificing a part of yourself. That it’s all wrapped up in a phantasmagoric, erotic package a half-step away from the hazy, hallucinatory dispatches of 70s Eurohorror only intensifies the uneasiness surrounding this relationship.
Separate, dreamy montages capture both the delirium and anxiety of relationships, plunging the audience into every crevice of this particular bond, be it playful dalliances or the vindictive birthday celebrations. Strickland never sensationalizes the highs or the lows here, nor does he exploit his subject matter (this is the classy S&M picture that keeps its human toileting off-screen); rather, The Duke of Burgundy lingers in a very authentic, very human space that recognizes that relationships are marathons, not rollercoasters. Once its butterfly metaphor locks into place in the last shot, it suggests that some relationships aren’t metamorphic so much as they’re cyclical, leaving viewers with one, final uneasy impression of a snake eating its own tail.
How you read the final moment may say more about you than it does the film: are relationship routines stifling or comforting? Or is Strickland simply taking the piss out of the whole thing by insinuating that we can never be sure?
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