The Duke of Burgundy: filthy and fraught with genuine emotion
The Duke of Burgundy is the most tender love story you’ll see in which a woman forcefully urinates in her lover’s mouth.
Though let me rephrase – you don’t actually see it. Peter Strickland, the highly stylized film fetishist behind Berberian Sound Studio, keeps his bizarre fantasy world of, let’s politely call it “alternative lifestyle choices,” laced-up in a peculiar corset of his own design. There’s no nudity in this intensely sexual tale of a May-December lesbian S&M relationship. There are also no men. I don’t mean that in a “fish needs a bicycle” kind of way – I mean the movie exists in a world without men, or automobiles or vocations/activities other than delivering or attending lepidopteralectures.
When we first meet butterfly professor Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) she seems like a meanie, a patrician jerk cruel to her maid. In time we learn that their relationship is sexual, and their slow moves toward the bedroom play out in a manner familiar with Emmanuelle-esque softcore fare. As stagey scenarios repeat themselves we discover that while Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) may seem like the slave, she is, in a certain respect, the master. She is submissive by choice and, in fact, is the architect of the increasingly peculiar and deviant sex acts Cynthia unleashes. Punishment is a big deal for Evelyn. While this sounds like the most absurd and reductive regurgitation of the dregs of Penthouse Forum, the way Strickland lays it out is eventually, and unexpectedly, quite sweet. Never in all of cinema has the mashing of panties against a face been quite so fraught with genuine emotion.
Strickland’s neo-giallo Berberian Sound Studio was a masterpiece of form, but the tale of an audio engineer slowly falling into an abyss was something of a misfire in terms of narrative. The Duke of Burgundy (which is the name of a type of butterfly) stays considerably more focused. Once it is established that this is a world where one can buy a mattress that allows for lovers to sleep smothered underneath their partners, or that one can purchase devices that double as a “human toilet,” audiences must decide if they can ever take this kind of story seriously. Strickland is clearly not joking, though, at least beyond the surface. The film is rich with some of the finest high threadcount production design since Park Chan-wook’s Stoker. He’s also not afraid to dive heavy into montage, and he’s got the 19th Century scientific drawings ready to go.
I don’t think there’s any great or deep meaning for the butterfly symbol beyond the obvious one – and that’s okay. One of the more far-out and dreamy montages takes place as Evelyn’s eyes zoom in on her lover’s pelvis rendered dark in an unlit room. Strickland’s psycho-sexual issues are our gain – the picture is prurient as all hell, but I’ve long been one of those “trade my violence in movies for sex” guys. I’d much prefer to explain to my young nephew that human desire is a rare and unique experience than to make sense of why all those meatheads are killing one another in Expendables 3. Evelyn and Cynthia’s relationship (“evil” and “sin”), curious and conflicted though it is, is one based on love and, ultimately, respect. Fantasies are requested and delivered with care and understanding. Well, most of the time. Eventually Evelyn’s tastes grow dark and that’s when Cynthia has to use her trump card. How do you punish someone who wants to be punished? By not punishing them? I think I just heard you say “whoa.”
The Duke of Burgundy will have its detractors. But this is not just a filthy movie. It’s a considerable work of art, and one that touches on a rarely discussed side of human sexuality completely free of judgement. You may be surprised to find shades of your own life in Evelyn and Cynthia’s fragile relationship.
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