“Would you rather be caught cheating, or catch your partner cheating on you?”
A couple weeks ago I was playing a game of “would you rather” with some friends and that question came up. When answering that question, most people -or at least most of the people I was playing the game with- said they would rather catch their partner cheating, because it would let them be the victim. The victim suffers, but it also gets the upper hand. Infidelity doesn’t really play a big part in Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy. It is more interested in questioning why we answer that question the way we do, and even more interested still in seeing how a relationship changes once victimhood has been accepted. But that’s not all. This meditation on love and commitment is wrapped up in fancy lingerie, and soaked in exotic perfumes. It is a deeply intellectual film and a hilarious erotic adventure at the same time.
The movie opens with a woman, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), riding her bike to work. She is a maid at an old house. The mansion, with floors made of deep strong wood, and furniture covered in red and purple velvet looks almost too much like the ideal locale for mid-century European erotica. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the woman that lives in the house, seems like a British aristocrat, or at the very least, is as cold as one imagines a British aristocrat to be. She orders Evelyn to clean the study and wash her clothes with piercing detachment. When she discovers that Evelyn forgot to wash a piece of clothing, she punishes her by peeing into her mouth. Cynthia does all these things because she loves Evelyn.
So, yes, the movie starts up not too far away from the way a pornographic film would, but we quickly learn that things are not what they seem. It’s such a unique experience to go into The Duke of Burgundy without knowing what you’re about to see, that I wouldn’t want to get too much into the plot of the movie in case you haven’t seen it yet. What I will say, is that the movie positions victimhood as the currency of relationships. What does it mean to suffer for love? And what happens with suffering becomes a competition? And also, when is the competition over? Who comes out victorious? And what do they win? Is pretending to hurt somebody the same as actually doing it? What if they’re asking for it? But what if the game is so perfect that is seizes being a game? Stepping out of the game ruins the mood, but is it necessary in order to keep fiction from becoming reality?
This is an intense and twisted two-hander between D’Anna and Knudsen. In it’s questioning of the reality of a relationship, it doesn’t fall far from Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, although unlike the casual realism of that masterpiece, The Duke of Burgundy drowns in artificiality. Most descriptions of Strickland’s style will begin by mentioning how he is influenced by Italian Giallo cinema, and he very much is. The opening credits, as well as everything and everyone in the movie seems to be taken right out of 1960s Italy. The way D’Anna is made up and dressed in particular, makes her look like a mid-century actress history had forgotten about.
Strickland also indulges in long, slow-motion filled sequences that sometimes serve to establish certain situations -like an uproariously funny visit by a carpenter played by Fatma Mohamed, but other times, provide an almost abstract insight into the minds of both Evelyn, and more cuttingly, Cynthia. Sex and dream sequences intertwine, and turn disturbing thanks to an astral score by UK synth-pop duo Cat’s Eyes. Cynthia is also interested in entomology, and collects thousands of butterflies and moths in her house. Considering the nature of the movie, saying that moths play a part in these hallucinogenic montages can’t be considered a spoiler.
The Duke of Burgundy can turn a little slow at times, since there isn’t that much plot to it, and a lot of it is conveyed through slow revelatory visuals. At the same time, though, it is a sickly funny movie. It is so happy to be as wild and decadent as it is, that it’s impossible not to be impressed and delighted by the confidence with which it accepts the ridiculous world these characters are living in. At one point a character makes a comment that makes it seem like everyone in town, or at least in the neighborhood, seems to be into the same kind of sick games Evelyn and Cynthia are engaging in. I can’t help but comparing this movie to David Fincher’s Gone Girl, and concluding that Strickland has the unrestrained appetite that Fincher was lacking when trying to tackle the trashiness of Gilian Flynn’s story, which isn’t even half as insightful when it comes to the nature of relationships.
Grade: 9 out of 10