Film Review: Strickland’s 'The Duke Of Burgundy' is More Than A 70s Softcore Pastiche

There’s been much talk of filthiness and prurience surrounding The Duke of Burgundy, Peter Strickland’s third feature - which is hardly surprising for a film about a dominant/submissive lesbian relationship that features (much has been made of this, though it never appears on-screen) an arcane sexual device called the human toilet. It’s also been hard to escape the word ‘pastiche’ in discussions of the film, which has a ravening eye for the tropes of certain brands of European ‘70s softcore porn and horror. It is a considerably more substantial work than those terms suggest, however: pastiche is its method, certainly, and much of its content is sexual, but the film’s deeper project is an investigation of love, of performance and of the troubled intersections of the two.

It is the ‘story’ of Cynthia and Evelyn, two women who live in an entirely female world that, aesthetically, appears to be a cineaste’s vision of rural France in the 1970s. Though our initial impression is of Evelyn as a meek girl employed to clean Cynthia’s large country pile, and of the relationship as at first economically and then sexually abusive, a far more complex reality is quickly revealed: the two women are lovers, and if there’s a master here it is Evelyn’s insatiable need to have a master. It’s a need that begins to take its toll on the older and it seems more conventional Cynthia, and on the relationship itself.

The quote-marks around ‘story’ are there because The Duke of Burgundy doesn’t concern itself with events as such; it is composed largely of repetitions of and variations upon a few basic scenes and sequences. The film’s tremendous emotional heft comes to us borne on the very many subtle but powerful changes that are coded into these repetitions. That heft also relies heavily on the sheer sensual power Strickland finds in the genre flicks that are his touchstones, and on how he subverts the expectations we inevitably have of a film with those touchstones.

aesthetics are powerfully combined here and produce a gauzy yet genuinely strange and even fraught atmosphere

If you want a detailed discussion of writer/director’s palette of cinematic reference Indiewire has a fascinating one here, but one of the beauties of this film is that its recondite range of allusion doesn’t prevent the references being simultaneously abundantly clear to the layman. From the hazy girl-on-bicycle freeze-frames of the opening credits onwards, it’s obvious that Strickland is speaking the soft-focus, curiously oblique and twee language of ‘70s European sexploitation and horror cinema, but no familiarity with the films of Jess Franco is required to come to that conclusion: if you’ve seen Emmanuelle, The Omen or Don’t Look Now you’re pretty well there.

The Duke of Burgundy is neither explicitly titillating nor frightening, however, so we might ask what Strickland’s purpose is in adopting this look and feel. The answer lies, I think, in the associations those genres bring, which in the case of erotica is an ahistorical languid sensuality and in the case of horror the sense of uneasy depths underlying a calm, quotidian surface. These aesthetics are powerfully combined here and produce a gauzy yet genuinely strange and even fraught atmosphere that underpins the melancholy of the lovers’ negotiations.

Why, we might also ask, the seemingly incidental interest in butterflies? In interviews Strickland has been reluctant to give any specific answers and has hinted that it was largely a matter of finding the different visual textures appealing. I would venture, though, that there is more to it than that. The very long and deliberate shots of historical butterfly illustrations are imbued with something of the same heady sensuality as the rest of the film, but also serve as implied reminders of the futile nature of all taxonomy: if there’s a ‘point’ to the film’s soft surfaces, enigmatic shifts, unstated strangeness and illegible dynamics it’s precisely the impossibility of meaningfully labelling things, at least for long. The choice of the butterfly the Duke of Burgundy for the title of this pretty well male-less film seems also to be no accident: many reviewers have pointed to it as the only male present, but of course the gendered name refers to both the male and the female of this rare species. The title is yet another piece of subtle, enigmatic misdirection from a film that’s full of them.

None of which should give the impression that the film is a soullessly intellectual genre exercise. Not only is The Duke of Burgundy genuinely affecting and not at all exploitative, it is also frequently very, very funny. This is a world where the delivery of a bed with a very specific and arcane sexual purpose is delayed because of demand in a neighbouring village, where the presence of mannequins in an audience is deemed entirely unremarkable, and where the only non-sexual activity apparently available is attending lectures on lepidoptera. It is also strikingly beautiful: apart from the many montages of autumnal woodland and plush, shadowy interiors, the scenes in which Evelyn washes underwear render some of the most simply gorgeous images you’re likely to see all year. Most of all, however, the film is deeply felt: for all the comedy and sensuality, and for all its potentially arch awareness of itself as a work of cinema, at heart this is a poignant vision of a genuinely loving relationship being tested by the undeniable and contesting needs of the two people within it.

More about the author

About the author

Abe Davies is a writer and journalist. He has a couple of literature degrees from UEA and St Andrews, and has written on everything from cognac to Shakespeare's ghosts to contemporary American photography. He's also worked in marketing and publicity in the publishing industry for five years, and when he was younger in a lot of restaurants.

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