THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY
Director: Peter Strickland
Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D'Anna, Fatma Mohamed, Eugenia Caruso, Zita Kraszkó, Monica Swinn, Eszter Tompa
Running Time: 1:44
Release Date: 1/23/15 (limited); 3/13/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 12, 2015
The Duke of Burgundy is set in a small village that is perhaps located in England but may as well be part of an alternate universe. There are no men here. Everyone we meet lives in a lavish manor, despite there being no evidence that anyone has a steady line of work that would afford such a home. Lectures about butterflies (the origin of the title, by the way) are met with a packed house of engaged audience members. The local carpenter is flooded with orders for custom-made beds that allow a person to sleep in a constricted compartment beneath the mattress, thereby allowing one's lover to sleep on top of the person. The carpenter, though, could fit in an order for "human toilet" in a rush.
Out of context, at least some of this will not make any sense. Within the context of writer/director Peter Strickland's odd tale of the power dynamics and struggles between a pair of female lovers, most of it does make at least some sense. Does that make sense? Either way, we can only take from a movie what we are given. Here, we're given a unique relationship that superficially appears sensationalistic but that Strickland presents in a way that is at once surprisingly modest and as enigmatic as the story's backdrop.
We think we comprehend the relationship between these two characters fairly quickly after their first interaction. Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) arrives at a manor on her bike after kneeling by a creek and visiting the local library to study some books on butterflies. She's met by Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the owner of the house, who informs Evelyn that she's late.
Cynthia sets her maid on the daily chores: cleaning the study, scrubbing the floors, and cleaning her underwear by hand, even through there's a washing machine in the house.
After Cynthia discovers a pair of panties that Evelyn overlooked, she tells the maid that she must punish her. She leads Evelyn to the bathroom, and from behind the closed door, we hear Cynthia give another order: "Lie down, and open your mouth." It's followed by an unmistakable sound of flowing liquid that becomes sporadic as Cynthia has finishes her necessary business. Even after all of this, we see Evelyn watch Cynthia through the keyhole of the door to her employer's bedroom—a look of lustful, loving longing on her face.
With this sequence of acts, the characters are defined: Cynthia is a sadistic lady of the manor who degrades her employee, while Evelyn, who must endure the humiliation for the sake of her job and because she adores the woman, is the victim of a wealthy control freak. Our sympathies go one way, and our outrage goes the other.
The relationship is so clearly defined, in fact, that Strickland's reversal of it comes as a complete shock. We again watch the daily routine of the household, but this time, it's from Cynthia's perspective. We spot notes with prepared remarks—a script with the dialogue of the previous day written in steady cursive. We see Cynthia time her arrival to the front door when Evelyn knocks.
We realize in an instant that everything we thought we knew about the dynamic between these two characters has been a carefully staged lie. The "victim" is the dominant one. The "sadist" is merely giving a masochist what she wants. Our sympathies spread out between them, dissipating slightly in the process, and our outrage transforms into amused curiosity.
That the movie is as amusing as it is comes as a bit of surprise, but that's because of the way Strickland goes about normalizing this relationship. He wisely leaves the more unpleasant bits—such as the aspect of the relationship that involves at least one bodily fluid—behind closed doors and to insinuation. The scene with the carpenter (Fatma Mohamed) takes it one step further in pointing out that Cynthia and Evelyn's affair is not unique in this village (or this universe or wherever it is where the movie is set). Their sex is one-sided and filmed by Strickland and cinematographer Nicholas D. Knowland as an otherworldly event of shadows and split images. The sexual "normalcy" of this relationship comes in a scene of Evelyn instructing Cynthia to scold her as her hand moves rhythmically under the sheets.
Our view of Cynthia and Evelyn's romance starts at something of turning point. Cynthia's eyes exhibit some doubt. Evelyn becomes increasingly frustrated by her lover's hesitation.
Their everyday behavior is founded on the lie of role-playing, and Strickland's screenplay unravels how that orchestrated lie is just the surface of deeper, more genuine ones. There's a very funny scene in which Cynthia actually becomes a domineering partner, but her "punishment" of Evelyn is forcing her to bake a cake. For her part, Evelyn's lie is that she desires submission when her every act is about controlling Cynthia.
The movie is intriguingly observant and comical but only up to a point. That point might be during a sequence of intersecting nightmares, in which each character's deepest fear (or maybe desire) reveals itself. We quickly realize The Duke of Burgundy is more effective as a joke than where it ultimately leads—as an attempt at a thoughtful examination of the give and take of a romantic relationship.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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