With Peter Strickland’s exceptional second feature, Berberian Sound Studio (2012), which paid an obvious homage to the blood curdling giallo films of the 1960s and 1970s. His latest film The Duke of Burgundy gives a less apparent commendation to the euro sleaze films of directors such as Jess Franco. Dealing with the insular and turbulent relationship between Cynthia and Evelyn, The Duke of Burgundy, screened as part of Brighton’s Cine-City film festival, is an opulent tale of obsession and dominance.
Initially appearing to be a period drama, The Duke of Burgundy looks as if it were shot in a manor house surrounded by forest in Eastern Europe at the turn of the start of the 20th century. Cynthia, a butterfly professor, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen of Borgen fame, and Evelyn, her housekeeper, played by Chiara D’Anna are engaged in a turbulent sado-masochistic relationship. An internal power struggle arises and Cynthia is struck with thoughts of malaise and detachment towards Evelyn. This puzzling eroticism and intimacy between Cynthia and Evelyn subverts the notion of roles within a relationship and toys with the audience in its transition through the meta-role play of Cynthia.
Although seemingly a romantic period drama, as revealed in the subsequent Q&A with Strickland it is set in an unspecified location at an unspecified period of time. This deliberate ambiguity creates a fairytale sphere around the central characters through which the combination of sound and vision constructs a balance between the real and illusory. Much like Berberian Sound Studio, where Strickland puts as much emphasis on sound as vision to hallucinatory effect, in The Duke of Burgundy this even handed composition of cinematic oeuvre establishes its themes through its sensory charge. An example of this is the dreamlike sequence where Evelyn becomes surrounded by butterflies with the overpowering flutter of the insects dominating the whole screen. Not to mention the superb score from Cat’s Eyes, which combines elements of baroque music with ethereal vocals from singer Rachel Zeffira.
This acutely tactile melodrama, may be paying homage to the BDSM euro trash masterpieces of the 20th century, but it disrupts the idea of gratuitous sex scenes and favours metaphors of obsession. Whilst its subject matter is intrinsically tied with its eroticism, The Duke of Burgundy is not about sexual charge between two women, but despondency within a relationship. With this puzzling film set in a world without men, Strickland has already made headway in solidifying his place as one of the most promising directors of the decade.
By Ryan Bellett.