The Duke of Burgundy (London Film Festival 2014) Review

Peter Strickland’s inventive S&M romance argues love means never saying no (unless the other person wants you to)

The silhouette of a midnight smooch will no longer suffice for cinematic expression of affection. Early in The Duke of Burgundy we see a woman urinate into the mouth of her grateful lover; the sub/dom exploits continue from there. Although it sounds like the kind of online video advertised by spambots (and a bit like episode of Friends where Ross drinks chicken fat to prove a point to Rachel), Peter Strickland has created one of the year’s most unique romances that’s made sweeter the more it deviates into unorthodox territory.

The world entered by the viewer is one without men or digital clocks. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) delivers lectures to an all-female audiences (not necessarily all-human) on her expert topic of butterflies, moths and the variations in between. However, it’s her all-female home life that dominates (pun kinda intended) proceedings. Her younger housekeeper, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), is another butterfly to catalogue, whose daily tasks are mapped as meaningless punishments (“Did I say you could sit down?”). Except waiting at the finish line is an actual punishment involving watersports – which is when the personas are whipped and undressed. It’s revealed that Evelyn follows orders during the day, but is actually always in control. Pillow talk at evenings consists of constructive feedback – generally it’s “be nastier” – before an intimate impasse of two sleeping bodies.

Playing detective is part of the experience. Strickland delights in feeding as little background information as possible. Berberian Sound Studio was about blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, and The Duke of Burgundy does the same – too well, if taking awkward moments when Cynthia breaks character to check on Evelyn’s wellbeing. (To be fair, even if Daniel Day-Lewis locked someone in a box for several hours, he would also at one point drop the facade to verify his captive can breathe.)

Simultaneously, the fun is in scrutinising facial expressions for strained hints of impatience, while drifting into the structure’s musicality and repetition. (The moth motif is a little overdone, but nevertheless still beautiful.) Cynthia, the older and more maternal of the relationship, develops back ache and physically can’t keep up with the demands. Surrounded by woodland, they live in isolation and rarely deal at length with outsiders unless it’s a sales pitch about human toilets (which come in two variations, apparently). For Cynthia, it means adapting to Evelyn’s fetishist fairytale, and being forced into a wardrobe in which half the outfits require an instruction manual. And as fairytales go, Strickland’s is decidedly adult, sensuous and of the kind that literally thanks Jesus Franco at the end with its list of shout-outs.

Each glorious frame – ushered by a dreamlike score by Cat’s Eyes – is there to hypnotise the viewer into Evelyn’s fantasy. The level of poetic and scientific detail is staggering, right down to the final credits listing “Featured insects in order of appearance”. What makes it even more absorbing is the absence of radios, TV or media interference; just books about cataloguing butterflies, to further cement the metaphor. When pissing down someone’s throat can be an everyday routine like making two cups of tea instead of one, it’s apparent that their love – or at least keeping a relationship alive – boils down to observing what the other isn’t saying. Strickland places the couple under the microscope to make a point that love means never saying no (unless the other person wants you to).

’The Duke of Burgundy’ is playing London Film Festival 2014 as part of the Official Competition strand. Ticket information can be found here.

Nick Chen

Updated: Sep 25, 2014

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