The Duke of Burgundy Review
Although this word would more likely feature in a lepidopterology context, in The Duke of Burgundy it is used as a safe word for sado-masochistic role play. Peter Strickland’s third feature, after 2009’s Katalin Varga and 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio, is definitely a strange object of cinema. It tells a story of sexual submission between a couple in a dreamy 60/70s atmosphere inspired by a scene of Luis Buñuel’s masterpiece Belle De Jour and movies by stakhanovite Spanish film director/writer/composer/cinematographer/ actor Jesús "Jess" Franco (more than 200 credits as a director between 1957 and 2013, the year of his death!), but at its heart, it is a touching love story.
In an unnamed European city and an unspecified time, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen, Borgen) is a lepidopterist who is seemingly firmly in control of her partner Evelyn (Chiara d’Anna, Berberian Sound Studio) through a strict, dictatorial fetish life behind closed doors. But as Evelyn's requests to be dominated become increasingly extreme the true nature of their relationship begins to surface.
When we meet Evelyn and Cynthia their relationship seems to be based on a sado-masochistic relationship where the distinguished lepidopterist dominates and her young lover in a variety of household based situation. However, as the same staged situations are shown under different points of view, we understand that it is actually more complicated: it is more the older, and at first sight colder, Cynthia who is actually under the shy looking Evelyn’s domination (well interpreted by Chiara D’Anna with a good mixture of control and annoying fragility). As the movie cleverly progresses, the different layers of Cynthia’s identity gradually unfold. Like the moths she studies, she is trapped by a controlling collector but of fetishist fantasies (like the shot of Evelyn watching in the microscope and seeing Cynthia lying on her bed clearly suggests). Evelyn wants to experience more and more of her own fantasies (most likely they were not her own at the beginning of their relationship but they now most certainly are...) and she doesn’t really care if they please Cynthia or not (the episodes with the trunk are a blatant example). Evelyn carefully choreographs all the situations (at some point we see marker tape on the floor) and uses her partner’s love for her as a mean to re-enact them over and over again with little concern for Cynthia’s own pleasure. There are several scenes in the movie when we can witness Cynthia’s preparation and during these “realisation” moments, the movie allows us to see more clearly Cynthia’s feelings while pushing us to constantly reassess her role within the relationship (which goes from cold dominator to consenting lover and finally controlled victim).
During these realisation moments, for instance when Cynthia sits alone in front of her mirror drinking glasses of water one after the other, the movie becomes surprisingly touching. Among the abundance of trunk locking and face sitting scenes, we can genuinely feel Cynthia’s despair. This is not only a story of sexual domination but also of mental domination, Evelyn always finding a way to keep Cynthia under her control. The audience can only empathise with Cynthia when, by the end of the film, instead of sounding cold and in control, her voice quivers leaving her sounding vulnerable and on the point of breakdown. This is not an easy thing to achieve for an actor but Sidse Babett Knudsen manages to do it brilliantly throughout the movie.
Visually, the movie is gorgeous. Each shot, each camera move has carefully been thought by the director in a fetishist way which can seem very close from the one enjoyed by Evelyn during the role plays. Everything has to be perfect, from the clothes and haircuts to the colors and sounds. The movie was shot in Hungary for the exteriors and the UK for the interiors and Peter Strickland has mentioned that the main influences which fed into The Duke of Burgundy were as various as Juraj Herz’s Morgiana (1972), Jess Franco’s A Virgin among the Living Dead (1973), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), and Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) but also Stan Brakhage’s short film Mothlight (1963) and Cleo Übelmann’s lesbian art film Mano Destra (1986). Peter Strickland explained that “the starting point for the script was to see how the disreputable genre of ‘70s erotic cinema could be resuscitated”.
Jess Franco was known for shooting very quickly, and most of the time in a very cheap way, movies which usually revolved around lesbian vampires, women in prison, surgical horror, sadomasochism, zombies and sexploitation. However, as many cinephiles, what Peter Strickland retained from the vision of his movies was that they were “incredibly rich in atmosphere and intensity”. The director’s idea, however, was more to use his manner of working (“shooting something very quickly and cheaply with not many actors or locations”), as the basis for the movie while cleverly avoiding “nudity or any clichés normally associated with sado-masochism” and making a more realistic movie in the sense that Cynthia “is not the classic dominant fantasy figure, but just a woman who likes a cuddle in her baggy pyjamas”. And this is definitely not what Evelyn’s idea of love is...
A very essential element in the dreamy atmosphere of the movie is the ethereal music by Cat’s Eyes, an alternative pop duo formed in early 2011 by vocalist Faris Badwan and Italian-Canadian soprano, composer and multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira, which in several instances strongly reminds the work of music composer Bruno Nicolai, a regular collaborator of Jess Franco. The music gives The Duke of Burgundy a strong feel of European 60/70s movies, which fits perfectly all the other aspects of the movie (locations, clothes, atmosphere, actresses, credits, etc.), decades which saw European cinema at one of its peak periods.
All these elements make The Duke of Burgundy an intense, and rewarding, if viewers allow themselves to be lead where the director wants to take them, cinema experience which is quite refreshing in current British cinema.
The Duke of Burgundy was released on 27 April by Artificial Eye in Blu-ray and DVD.
The movie is presented in a 1080p transfer respecting the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Artificial Eye has done a real marvellous job with the disc. The movie offers a wide range of panoramic shots and close-ups which are all rendered beautifully in high-definition both in terms of clarity and colors (some shots are absolutely amazing). The dreamy quality wanted by the director is also perfectly transcribed and allows home viewers to experience the movie in the best conditions possible.
On the audio side, the Blu-ray disc offers 2 options, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM Stereo 2.0, which transcribe perfectly the music and sounds (in particular the insect ones) quality. English language heard of hearing subtitles and audio description are also available.
The disc offered by the European films specialist editor offers a very good range of supplements.
I particularly enjoyed Peter Strickland’s commentary during which the director explains many elements of the movie such as the title (“a man title for an all female movie”), the credit sequence (references to 70s cinema freeze frame technique and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby), the many references (from the fact that Cynthia’s haircut is modelled on Stéphane Audran’s haircut in Claude Chabrol’s Les Biches to the underwear sequence inspired by John Candy’s underwear scene in John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles!), the music (both Cat’s Eye’s music but also the one played on the set: Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for Paolo Cavara’s The Black Belly of the Tarantula and Giuseppe De Luca‘s soundtrack for Massimo Dallamano’s Dorian Gray), the actors (the main ones but also Lorna, the neighbour, played by Monica Swinn who was in 23 of Jess Franco’s movies), shooting the intimate or the lecture scenes (the use of mannequins in the audience which comes from Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jess Franco’s movies), the tone of the maso-masochist scenes (the balance between sexual, serious and funny), his favourite scenes and shots, the editing (use of the blacks in transition scenes), the insects’ sounds, the trunk scenes (how Evelyn still controls Cynthia even when she is locked in it) or the dream sequence.
There is also a very informative interview with Peter Strickland in which he discusses among others elements the origins of the film (movies from Jess Franco and Jean Rollin), his attraction to their imagery, Nicholas D. Knowland’s cinematography and Cat’s Eyes score mainly using woodwind instruments (12 min).
The Blu-ray disc also includes a lengthy section of deleted scenes, many intimate ones between the 2 lovers, scenes clarifying (maybe too much) the money relationship between them, and some scenes involving Monica Swinn. All the deleted scenes have written explanations by the director (46 min).
Artificial Eye have also included a Cat's Eyes Promo in very ecclesiastic mode (5 min) and 'Conduct Phase', a short film shot by Peter Strickland in 1996 in Greece in the stray dog community (8 min).
Finally you get a series of revealing stills gallery covers showing various elements of the film at different stages of production and informative notes on mole crickets accompanied by audio extracts of the lecture given by Cynthia in the movie and insects sounds.
The last bonus is the theatrical trailer of the movie.
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