Before the opening credits for The Duke of Burgundy are over, it signals that we are in for a treat. The credits have two unusual entries: there is one for the film’s lingerie – which hints at its pervasive sexiness – then there is another for the perfume that’s in the film. That’s right, the perfumer gets a credit, and it’s is not in smell-o-vision, either. Writer/director Peter Strickland is ambitious in a unique way: he does not want to change how we watch movies, per se, so it’s more like he wants to change how we interact with them. The Duke Burgundy indulges our eyes, but also our ears and touch, and it’s the point where we imagine the smells, too. Few films are this sensuous, or romantic.
Strickland never quite explains the title for his film, and instead plunges into a world that’s both familiar and alien. A young woman (Chiara D’Anna) rides her bike toward a mansion, one that’s teeming with ivy and other flora. An older woman (Sidse Babett Knudsen) greets her at the door, and their conversation is stilted, forced. There are list of demands – clean this, dust that – and the subtext of the interaction is ritual.
Over the course of the film, Strickland reveals the depth of the relationship of these two women, mostly in terms of dominance. They’re romantically involved, and while it seems that the older woman Cynthia is controlling, it’s the younger Evelyn who wields the power. Strickland films the pair as they have sex, attend entomological conferences, and repeat the same role playing games. What drives every interaction is the need for acceptance and an inability to articulate feelings, which only grow complex as they dig deeper into their roles.
Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland’s previous film, uses sound to a chilling effect. In it, a sound designer works on a horror film, and he is disturbed by the tools he uses to achieve the desired effects. Strickland got us to listen, achieving psychological horror without any supernatural elements.
The Duke of Burgundy also invites the audience to listen, truly listen, except that sound design now heightens sexual fetishes. There is a scene where Evelyn crouches at a door and peeps through the key hole, and Strickland makes it clear that Cynthia can also hear the creaking floorboards. Sound serves as a betrayal of desire here, so we’re made to realize how every caress or whisper can ravish every sense in our bodies. Tellingly, his visual approach is the most abstracted: the camera distort the image until we’re only left with an oblique visual impression of the couple. Through the power of cinema and without any on-screen nudity, Strickland recreates erotic euphoria.
There is a sense of isolation in The Duke of Burgundy, both in terms of plot and production design, which heighten the tension between Cynthia and Evelyn. There are few supporting characters, except for a protracted, oddly funny scene where a blond saleswoman peddles fetish furniture (the punch line is a phrase so bizarre I wouldn’t dare spoil it here). The setting is European, more or less, yet exists outside a specific time and place: there are no cell phones, and the non-lingerie fashion is somewhere between colonial American and a sixties mod look. Strickland lingers on images of insects, mostly moths, which is both symbolic and world-defining. Like Evelyn’s kinks, their shared profession aims to dominate a creature whose defining characteristic is transcendence.
The brilliant thing about this over-reliance on style is that it leads to a deepening of the substance: there are fissures in this relationship, no matter how closely they follow the script, so there’s a tension between ritual and desire. Strickland adds flourishes of humor, either when Cynthia and Evelyn break character or strive to preserve it. By the time they reach an impasse, it’s unclear whether they can revert back to trust.
In its unique way, The Duke of Burgundy is one of the most touching films in years. Its characters create a set of rules, then reach a point where rules matter more than the relationship, so they’re left without any real communication. Part of the film’s power is the performances: Knudsen played the Danish Prime Minister in the TV drama Borgen, and here she also mixes a brave front with reserves of vulnerability. When her voices catches late in the film, the performance is heartbreaking because she knows how Cynthia disappoints Evelyn. D’Anna’s Evelyn has a crucial shift: she starts as the submissive, only to reveal she’s the instigator for the games they play. Through Strickland’s vision and kinky subject matter, there’s a heartfelt romance: we all yearn for understanding and love, and the frustration is we have little say in what form it arrives.