The Duke of Burgundy Review (2015) | Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
20Jul/150

The Duke of Burgundy (2015)

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A long and lonesome hallwayIf Peter Strickland's status as one of the most interesting contemporary filmmakers to emerge in the last 10 years was still in question after his first two films, Katalin Varga and Berberian Sound Studio, then A) I can't possibly see why, and B) The Duke of Burgundy puts that question to rest. Having all just gotten the unpleasant taste of 50 Shades of Grey-mania out of our mouths—no horrifying pun intended—Strickland has responded with a bondage and punishment-themed pseudo-chamber piece the art house set didn't know it wanted. If Grey tried to pass off subjugation and abuse under the guise of kink, Burgundy attempts to use models of power and control as a portal through which to interrogate the psychological effects and demands of relationships. And Strickland wisely takes the inherent inequality of gender roles out of the equation by working with an all-female cast.

Aside from a very small handful of supporting roles, The Duke of Burgundy follows Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her partner Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) through deepening phases of their relationship, which we quickly learn (after a deliberately misleading introductory sequence) is defined by various role-playing scenarios arranged around power play and punishment. The film steers relatively clear of depicting any extreme acts—a few potentially shocking ones are left to occur off-screen—opting instead to look at the increasing gap between one character's needs and the other's limits. (That these escalations are used as ground in which to embed a persistently winding psychological tension without passing judgement or marginalizing is one of the strengths of the film). Repetition is always a key tool for Strickland, who likes to layer new and shifting meanings on recurrent visual and audio tropes, and here it's a technique used to explore the effects of the couple's various games on the overall dynamic of their relationship.

The Bedmaker

The film co-opts a lot of dark fairy tale imagery and narrative techniques, which are repeated in varied forms throughout.

The opening scenes introducing us to the characters show Evelyn arriving to clean Cynthia's large country house. After a cold Cynthia scolds her for sitting down on the sofa without being asked, she snaps that she wants her to clean the office. “And don't take all day this time,” she remarks casually, later throwing trash directly in Evelyn's path as she's scrubbing the floor. They repeat this exchange a handful of times later in the film after it's been revealed as part of a sexualized game—a scenario for which Evelyn provides Cynthia with notes afterward, like “next time try to have more conviction in your voice” and instructions on the timing with which to interrupt her various tasks. Revisiting this scenario becomes a way to chart developing anxieties between the two, allowing Strickland to linger on each woman's reactions as they play out their respective roles. This eventually has a crucial effect of calling into question where the majority of the power in the relationship is really located, and from what actions it truly stems.

The Duke of Burgundy also bears Strickland's signature obsession with the ways heavily engineered sound and jarring visual interjections can carry the psychological weight of a narrative, here centered around Knudsen's character's rare butterfly collection. We get frequent and extreme close-ups of butterflies pinned to display boards or fluttering across muted backgrounds in slow motion, audio recordings of butterfly calls played at altered speeds, and odd pastoral sequences which imply characters always under some vaguely ominous observation.

Strickland is a huge fan of still shots that slowly move in on empty settings. He imbues objects and spaces with a creeping dread potential: the low-humming forests in Katalin Varga, the sound equipment and studio space itself in Berberian Sound Studio, and here an ornate glass lens on an old trunk/storage chest. The combination of overbearing soundtracks and apparently empty visual compositions suggests almost gothic spaces, weighted down with histories and about to burst under their own significance. (It occurs to me now that if Strickland had written and directed the recent Dark Shadows remake, it may have resulted in the greatest movie ever made.)

Evelyn at the Door

Strickland could make the scariest, most psychologically terrifying haunted house movie of all time.

In The Duke of Burgundy these moments are hypnotic—sudden jumps to characters wandering the grounds around the house or slow zooms on objects in the dark as the house sleeps exist mainly to create jarring breaks in and out of the narrative, forming a dreamlike logic through associations baldly Freudian. (The best sequence is a slow, moonlit chase that unfolds against intensifying ambient noise, bookended by shots in which Strickland literally zooms in and out of the shadowed area between a character's legs.) We're never quite sure how or when the film's depiction of reality is going to shift: internal monologues start in the middle of dialogue where the characters' faces are hidden, so we don't know what's actually being spoken aloud. A character observes an old woman from a distance standing statue-still in front of her clothesline. One bizarre scene has mannequins seated inconspicuously throughout a crowd as the camera traverses the audience.

There are even distinct nods to Persona, from the two-women-alone-in-a-house setting to a sex scene in which the main image is constantly separating into two overlaid mirrors moving away from each other (we saw a similar and equally effective version of this in a recent episode of Hannibal). There's a fracturing and division without a loss of coherence. Strickland's approach suggests that what we're seeing is both carefully crafted and dictated externally by each character's subconscious all at once, and in a film about the effects of playing certain roles, he's found the ideal subject matter for his distinct style.

Evelyn Outside the House

Strickland essentially does variations on genres that become dissections of the genres themselves. Take the way Berberian Sound Studio unfolded the major action scenes of the slasher film being made by its characters without ever showing a single act of violence—instead focusing the camera on the mundane work of the sound engineer, hacking up fruit and snapping celery for the soundtrack recording as the film-within-the-film played offscreen. Despite the psychological depths being mined here, there are also moments where the juxtaposition of the kink with standard domestic drama becomes darkly funny. During one scene in which Evelyn and Cynthia argue about a punishment involving the former being locked in a large trunk overnight, Evelyn pouts, “it would be nice if you did it without me having to ask.”

But what's maybe the most surprising about The Duke of Burgundy is how traditionally dramatic the story is that Strickland is telling. As we follow the characters into the various nuances of their game, the film becomes more about what people need from relationships—and what asking these things of others may require of them in return, including compromising their own needs. The ending is oddly sweet and sad, yet again repurposing an earlier scene while incisively observing the imperfection of relationships and the tolls they can take. It's fitting of the director himself that despite narrative material likely to be foreign to most viewers, in a thematic sense, this may actually be the most universal of his films.

The Duke of Burgundy PosterThe Duke of Burgundy(2015)

Written and directed by Peter Strickland.
Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D'Anna

Posted by Kyle Miner

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