By Don Simpson | January 23, 2015
Director: Peter Strickland
Writer: Peter Strickland
Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, Eugenia Caruso, Monica Swinn, Fatma Mohamed, Kata Bartsch, Zita Kraszkó, Eszter Tompa
Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy takes place in a surreal cinematic universe, one that is modern in style, but bicycles, typewriters and slide projectors represent the most cutting edge advancements in engineering; it is a world that places more emphasis on lepidoptery and S&M devices (human toilets, anyone?) than automobiles or telephones. Probably the most intriguing aspect of The Duke of Burgundy is that Strickland effortlessly normalizes same-sex relations by populating the screen solely with women; even sadomasochism seems to be as ordinary and common as white bread.
Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) play master and servant, play-acting ritualistically scripted scenarios, repeating the scenes as often as necessary. Punishment is a reward for Evelyn; she enjoys being bossed, degraded, scorned, and trapped (like — say — a butterfly). Our perception of the power dynamics between these two characters seems to be constantly shifting. Who is in control: the master or the servant who scripts the master’s words and actions? Their relationship abides by the notion that you should be the person that your partner wants you to be; in other words, play the role that they expect you to play, do anything for your partner. The problem is, it is extremely difficult for that scenario to work both ways; thus, The Duke of Burgundy hinges upon the inequality of their relationship.
Like Strickland’s previous feature, Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy is saturated with atmosphere, with intricate sound design and luscious giallo-esque imagery. There is a overtly contrived falsity to it all: the staged play-acting of the love affair; the production design that revels in the strangest minutia; the mannequins that are randomly seated in the audience of the lepidoptery convention. In The Duke of Burgundy, the world is but a stage…and we are the audience.