If you like your celluloid bondage sensual, tasteful, all-female and humorous, then this is the film for you. There is much to admire in British writer-director Peter Strickland’s ‘European’ arthouse drama – superb cinematography, sound and costumes – and fans of the Danish political drama Borgen will enjoy Sidse Babett Knudsen’s subtle performance.
In an unnamed place at an unknown time a young woman cycles through a forest, arrives at an imposing villa and rings on the doorbell. An older woman answers. ‘You’re late,’ she says. They go into a room full of antique furniture. ‘Did I say you could sit?’ she scolds, before issuing her instructions: ‘you can start by cleaning the study. And don’t take all day this time.’ It turns out that the women are lovers, rather than boss/maid, and this is the prelude to their agreed routine.
Cynthia (Knudsen) appears to be cool and controlling, but our understanding of the dominant/submissive dynamic in the relationship is overturned when we learn that Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) is ‘scripting’ their life together – writing instructions and dialogue for her partner on creamy white postcards. The Groundhog Day repetition of their exchanges could be seen as poking fun at the routines of ‘married’ life. When one partner pushes the boundaries, the film becomes darker, and cracks appear in the couple’s relationship. Knudsen is particularly good at showing us the human messiness beneath the artificial veneer. She snores, suffers from back pain, and worries about getting old.
The camera lingers on stockings and lingerie, but the film’s soft-porn stylings (breathy Je t’aime vocal accompaniment, close-ups of popping soapsuds, writhing insects) are playful. Those expecting 18-certificate sex and nudity will be disappointed, which begs the question why it has been given one – presumably for the (gentle) BDSM content.
Any po-faced Fifty Shades of Grey nonsense in the film is undercut by humour. When a carpenter visits the couple to discuss making a customised bed for Evelyn’s birthday, it turns out it would take too long. ‘Would a human toilet be an acceptable compromise?’ asks the carpenter.
The Duke of Burgundy takes its name from a species of butterfly. Cynthia is an entomologist who lectures at the local Institute. Her house is full of pinned and mounted insects in display cases – butterflies, moths, caterpillars and huge stick insects. She has vinyl records of ‘ugly but beautifully eloquent’ cicadas and crickets singing and the noise disturbs both her lover and her students. Strickland’s last film, the critically-acclaimed Berberian Sound Studio, also uses sound to unsettling effect. Much of Burgundy’s tension derives from its soundtrack, silence broken by the rasp of a boot’s zip being fastened, the music (by pop duo Cat’s Eyes) shifting from baroque harpsichord and cello to an electronic version of the cicadas’ relentless noise.
The credits at the end cite a variety of sound recordings taken in Hungary, Finland and Gloucestershire. The Duke of Burgundy was filmed in Hungary using an international female cast and it has a distinctly European arthouse feel. The villa and garden, with its cascading ivy-clad terraces, is magnificent. The film’s sumptuous visuals compensate for any lack of narrative excitement. It is a pleasure to sit back and luxuriate in the sight of a beautiful Siamese cat, the bookshelves of a library, a shifting kalaiedoscope of tree-tops viewed from above. Perhaps best of all is an astonishing super-close up/slow-down of flying moths, in which the hairs on their bodies are magnified so that they resemble cat fur.
Strickland is one of Britain’s most interesting and talented young writer-directors; he is probably already hailed as an ‘auteur’ in Europe. It will be fascinating to see what he does next.