There is no plot and there are no men in Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy. This film, Strickland’s third feature and my first encounter with the director, operates through suggestive flourishes that reward a patient and observant viewer. It’s perhaps the most sensual film ever made that includes watersports, and it’s also astute to issues that arise in any long term relationship. While at times stifling in its faux-sophistication, it’s a pungent air that Strickland earns in a film that transcends expectations even as it may not necessarily be transcendent.
An inventive and unusual (two words that best define The Duke of Burgundy) opening credits sequence sees Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) riding her bicycle to Cynthia’s (Sidse Babett Knudsen) decadent ivy-covered mansion. As the housemaid, Evelyn’s incompetence is an aggravating point of contention for Cynthia, who reprimands and humiliates her for all her foibles. The set-up is a thing of beauty, as we soon discover that this relationship is carefully scripted, with Evelyn detailing all of Cynthia’s actions and lines. This BDSM relationship becomes ritual, with Cynthia carefully following Evelyn’s instructions, as the role of submissive and dominant is blurred from our initial introduction to it.
My engagement with The Duke of Burgundy partly has to do with recent coincidental viewings of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond and some Stan Brakhage shorts, which all seemed to be informing what I was seeing from Strickland. The performances, notably Chiara D’Anna, seemed to be cut from the same cloth as Catriona MacColl’s in The Beyond, with verbal rhythms that sounded eerily familiar. And a powerful sequence toward the end of Burgundy recalls the rapid and enveloping editing of Brakhage, notably Cat’s Cradle, operating in similar tones and themes of amplified anxiety.
Perhaps most of all, and this largely has to do with the entomological aspects of the film, I was most reminded of the films of Hiroshi Teshigahara, notably Woman in the Dunes. The two films are united by how the use of insects feeds into the scale irrelevance – on a human scale, Evelyn and Cynthia are women that mean everything to each other, but their plights are comparatively small time to outside forces. And given that Strickland rarely leaves the grounds of the agave-encrusted estate, the drama that surfaces as we see the changes in Evelyn and Cynthia’s dynamic is reminiscent of the insular desert concerns found in Woman in the Dunes.
But these are passing, suggestive remarks found in a film that does feel fully formed in its originality. I found the film’s aggressive stylism and production design (and for that matter, its perfume credit) to feed into the aura of excess that’s cultivated and honed through the picture. Its remarks on the routine that comes with long term relationships are concise but not necessarily remarkable in their outcome or exploration. Still, there’s stylistic courage to be lauded here, and it’s a film that impresses for its superficial qualities – Strickland is onto something, but I suspect his real gambit is yet to come.