The Duke of Burgundy

· films · review ·

I haven’t reviewed any films here recently, having moved most of my reviews over to Slipstream, but I saw a film last week that I can’t stop thinking about, and I wanted to write about it here. Actually, I think this will be less of a review of the film than an extended ramble about stuff that it made me think about.

The film

The Duke of Burgundy is — by any measure — an odd film. Written and directed by Peter Strickland (who also wrote and directed Berberian Sound Studio), it tells the story of the dom/sub relationship between Evelyn (played by Chiara D’Anna) and Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Strickland is famously obsessed by Italian ‘Giallo’ and sexploitation films from the 1970s, and the visual style of this film is certainly influenced by them. However, initially I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to watch this film. It had got good reviews, but I’m not into (or at all interested in) dominance/submission or any of the related sub-cultures, and I think I thought the film would be violent, dark and exploitative. The good reviews — and the presence of Sidse Babett Knudsen, who is always brilliant — convinced me to at least give it a try. I’m so glad I did. At least part of my aim with this review is encourage others who might be similarly put off watching it by the apparent subject matter.

Simply put, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more complex, subtle, tender or intimate film about a loving relationship. This film is really not what you think it is going to be at all. It starts out slightly stereotypically, and then proceeds to wrong-foot the viewer completely. While it’s true that Evelyn and Cynthia do relate to each other in an unusual way, the themes touched on are ones that anyone who has had a relationship can relate to. How do you accommodate your partner’s needs without compromising your own? How can you have comfort, familiarity, stability and routine without your relationship becoming humdrum and stale? How can you show them love, care and tenderness? The film deals with all of these through its unconventional topic, and both leads (but particularly Sidse) convey it all subtly and beautifully, often with only a look. It’s a visually and aurally sumptuous and sensuous film, which reminded me a little (though it has a very different style) of the film In the Mood for Love. Both get their heady air of sensuality from an obsessive focus on tiny, details, like a macro photograph, and by implying rather than showing. This is amplified in The Duke of Burgundy by the fact that Cynthia and Evelyn are entomologists (of which more below), and spend long periods of time peering down binocular microscopes studying the precise venation of wings, or hairs on a thorax. You might not believe me, but it really is gripping. It’s also a warm, and at times, funny film.

There’s something wrong with the film industry and film classifications

There are no men — at all — in this film. There are some female mannequins in a couple of scenes (very surreal), but no living (or indeed, mannequin) men at all. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another film like that. I have, however, seen many, many films with an all-male cast, or which might as well have had an all-male cast with female mannequins for all the use they made of the female roles. The latter has come to seem normal, while an all-female cast seems completely surreal, and in fact helps to give the world of the film an otherworldly air1. There’s something wrong there.

The second thing about the film is that it is an 18 certificate. It features absolutely no violence of any kind2, no nudity, no swearing, and really almost no sex scenes. The latter are shot in such a dreamy, indirect way (again, implying more than they actually show) that they are a great deal milder than stuff you can see on pre-watershed terrestrial TV any night of the week. The only potentially problematic scene literally takes place behind a closed door: like a good double entendre your brain has to do all the work, in which case you were ‘corrupted’ before you watched the film. Contrast that with a film we watched this week, but I wished we hadn’t: ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’. This was a 15 certificate, and yet featured copious swearing, wall-to-wall cartoony ultra-violence, and a tiny handful of paper-thin, utterly tokenistic roles for women. Oh, and loads of really crass and obvious product placement. There’s something wrong there, too. I’m not saying that ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ is a film you would necessarily plonk the entire family down in front of, but teenagers could learn some useful things about maintaining relationships from it. I dread to think what kind of message they would get from ‘Kingsman’.

You could actually learn a lot about entomology from this film

I mentioned earlier that Cynthia and Evelyn are entomologists. In fact, everyone in this strange little world seems to be an entomologist, hanging out at the gorgeously fusty looking ‘Institute’. The title is the common name of a butterfly, Hamearis lucina. Almost every scene features butterflies, moths, crickets or beetles, either alive in the field, or as pinned specimens in cabinets. As my earlier footnote mentioned, you too can learn to distinguish — by the frequency of pulses and the carrier frequency of their songs alone — between two species of mole cricket (genuine recordings of the songs are played), and there’s a lot of other very geeky entomological detail. It filled me with joy to note that Strickland actually lists each of the insect species featured in the film (in order of appearance) in the credits, complete with Latin names, and also provides the full attribution and details (including time of day, microphone and recording equipment used etc.) of those mole cricket recordings. I loved him even more when I was watching the deleted scenes and saw a note that since the film was on a very tight budget, Strickland had to choose between paying a bondage expert or an entomologist to be present on set: he drily notes that he went with the entomologist.

  1. One of the things I like about the film, is that this is never explained in any way. It just is. There are women of all ages who do the things people do, like rake leaves, go on bike rides, and attend lectures on distinguishing the songs of two species of mole cricket. ↩︎

  2. Yes, Cynthia ties Evelyn up and restrains her, but it is made abundantly clear that this is completely consensual. ↩︎