The Duke of Burgundy: An appreciation of Peter Strickland’s mesmerizing 2014 masterpiece
What is gender, exactly? When sperm hits egg and the first spark of creation takes shape in the cozy confines of the mother’s womb, all life is… is just life. Just the blueprint of the potential of what we will become. What plumbing and genetic purpose that life will have is unknown. And then a biological die is cast and presto bingo, we have a code that defines a role in nature. But no matter what dangles between our legs, we are all amalgams of both, we all have the same chemicals and impulses, just some of us are designed to perhaps tilt strongly in one direction or another. It’s out of our hands. It’s nature.
But where things get tricky and — yawn, yes, political — is when we socialize nature. When we try to put parameters around that which should have none. Religion, media, fashion, school, all of these societal factors serve to muddy waters that should run pure. Boys. Girls. Men. Women. Beyond our biological function when it comes to mating and birthing, we are all in fact masculine and feminine hybrids. And yet we keep on trying to categorize and compartmentalize.
Which brings me to British director Peter Strickland’s ingenious and delirious 2014 masterpiece The Duke of Burgundy, a film I fell in love with instantly and which has haunted me ever since. Like his previous singular cinematic swoon, 2013’s Berberian Sound Studio, Duke combines intimate drama with hyper-stylized evolutions of European genre tropes and festishizations of their iconography. In Berberian it was the giallo film, focusing its narrative on a cinema sound designer who is losing his mind while working on an imagined ’70s Italian thriller. In Duke, Strickland mines the voyeuristic, psychedelic and lush films of Jess Franco. In fact, the movie began its life as a straight remake of Franco’s 1974 exploitation shocker Lorna the Exorcist. But Strickland — one of the most wonderfully unconventional filmmakers alive — got bored of the idea of a remake and instead took the project in another direction. And I’m so glad he did. Because what he did here in this mesmerizing film transcends any sort of classification. Sure, it has the ghost of Franco whispering in our ears, but this is Strickland’s vision. It’s pure cinema, deceivingly simple, breathtaking to behold and intimately observed with one of the most fragile and moving film scores I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. And while The Duke of Burgundy was exceedingly well reviewed and beloved by many, it’s still very much a secret. It’s out there. And it needs your eyes, your mind, your heart. And your other parts.
The film opens (under the loveliest of credits sequences) with the doe-eyed Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) riding her bike across some unnamed European countryside to the opulent home of her regal — and much older — employer Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), where she apparently works as a maid. The stern Cynthia chastises Evelyn for her tardiness and orders her to clean and scrub her home on her hands and knees and it soon becomes very evident that the pair share an intense master/slave-based, sexual relationship. Or do they?
Cynthia is a Lepidopterologist (which is a branch of entomology specializing in butterflies) and Evelyn, when she’s not reveling in her older lover’s sadistic sex play, is one of her students. But what is their relationship, exactly? As the story, with its teasingly perverted rituals, progresses, we learn that it is in fact Evelyn who is the master of the dynamic, with Cynthia dutifully indulging her youthful partner. But at what cost? When Evelyn’s eyes brighten up at the idea of having a custom made “human toilet” installed in their home, it’s clear Cynthia is becoming weary of these deviations. Meanwhile, the camera crawls and zooms and obsesses over architecture, leathers and laces and naked skin and the music of ethereal band Cat’s Eyes spills and spirals all over the soundtrack.
If you’ve indeed seen Strickland’s arresting psychodrama Berberian Sound Studio, you’re probably still thinking about that one. It’s such a singular piece of work that it falls into the category of movies that people either worship or despise. This writer of course fell into the former category while fully understanding the confounded and unimpressed point of view of the latter. It’s not an easy pill to swallow. But Duke is far more narratively accessible than that film, though it’s just as visually arresting. Here, Strickland creates an immersive, swirling tapestry of sound and image, with repeating motifs, whispers, obsessive imagery and potent sensuality. But the real trick of the film ties into the opening of this hopefully edifying essay in that concepts of gender are rendered moot.
Ostensibly, The Duke of Burgundy is a lesbian love story. Except, it’s really not. Look at the movie. Look at not just the stunning leads, but the supporting cast, the peripheral players, the extras. There are no men. Anywhere. And nobody questions this. There just aren’t any men in the universe in which this tale takes place inside. And yet, once you become locked into the movie, you don’t really notice this. Instead, the female leads aren’t identified as female but instead emerge and either masculine or feminine presences. There are aggressive and passive people in the movie. It’s not about identifying oneself as a boy or girl or gay or straight. It’s simply about the two opposing yet harmonious forces of nature that are in all of us. On that level, The Duke of Burgundy is a remarkable experiment in perception. And on another level it’s also a profound, moving character study of a person who loves another person and alters herself to accommodate that love, to “keep” that person. It’s about sacrifices. It’s about selfishness and selflessness, power and submission and how these dynamics are endlessly reversed. It’s raw and real. And it’s dressed up in so much cinematic finery, both eerie and lush, that it has a sensorial pleasure unlike any other movie before it.
Well, unlike any other movie that Jess Franco didn’t make, that is…