Ryan Pollard takes a look at Berberian Sound Studio director Peter Strickland’s highly anticipated new drama The Duke of Burgundy starring Sidse Babett Knudsen…
The latest film from Peter Strickland, The Duke of Burgundy is about two women, Evelyn and Cynthia, who live in an old house near a forest; an almost fairy-tale-esque realm with huge pine trees, sprouting mushrooms and a smattering of moths and butterflies, one of which is the Hamearis lucina (the Duke of Burgundy) butterfly that ties into the film’s title. Everyday, it appears that Evelyn is the lowly maid Cynthia punishes if she doesn’t perform well, but it’s all revealed to be a daily sadomasochistic routine, which both lovers have orchestrated to appease each other’s desires.
After Strickland finished his last film, the astounding Berberian Sound Studio, he was asked what he was planning to do next, and he simply stated that he was kind of doing a romantic comedy, and that statement can be seen as both truthful and deceptive. Even though the film has this bizarre, dream-like atmosphere that completely envelops, entices and seduces you, the dynamic in this central relationship between Evelyn and Cynthia is totally relatable. It’s surprisingly tender, moving, complex, misdirecting at times, and quite funny in certain areas.
What’s also clever about it is that because the nature of these two women’s relationship is such a performance, each of them ends up playing different roles. The film is able to talk more broadly about how in any relationship you are trying effectively to be someone your partner likes. When we see Cynthia treating Evelyn harshly in the opening minutes, that scene is played out again and again, and we see an almost different perspective on it each time it’s repeated, like Cynthia rehearsing over and over in her head how she should treat Evelyn and what she should actually say to her in order to please her. Even though the film is clearly an erotic drama, it approaches the characters in a smart and humanist manner, and that is one of the film’s greatest strengths.
The film also makes clever use of music and sound, with the music feeling like a surreal mixture of classical and retro. It works brilliantly in conjunction with the film’s mood and atmosphere, just like how it did in Berberian Sound Studio. It feels heightened, and otherworldly, and there were moments when the sound almost harks back to the ambient sounds used by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop during the 1960s.
In a way, the film engages with you on all sensory levels, which is something Strickland has done amazingly, and it’s also completely cine-literate with the film harking back to such works like Morgiana, The Bitter Tears of Betra von Kant and Belle de Jour. It’s one of those films that inspires you to seek out its influences, and yet it doesn’t feel pastiche or clichéd in any way. The performances from both Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna are great, and in the end, The Duke of Burgundy is one those beautifully done films that’s all about letting yourself go and allowing yourself to be enthralled and seduced.