Set in a dreamy village with surrounding woodlands, The Duke of Burgundy (2014) seems to exist somewhere out of time and place entirely. Peter Strickland’s ode to 70s European erotic films begins with a young woman, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) knocking upon the door of a grand house. An older woman, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), answers and berates her for her lateness. “Did I tell you that you could sit?” this sultry, expensively dressed mistress of the house asks when the seemingly flustered Evelyn attempts to take a seat. Evelyn is then subjected to tasks that seem designed to put her in her place. Tasks like handwashing her employer’s lacy underthings. “What is this?” her employer asks her icily, brandishing an unwashed pair of silk undergarments. What follows is Evelyn being taught a lesson by her mistress behind a closed door.
It becomes apparent that this is just an elaborate game that they play together, the same set-up again and again and again. At its heart, the Duke of Burgundy is an erotic and sensual film about the relationship between these two women as well as the ever shifting power balance within it.
The balance of power within their relationship is not as it seems. This is where the film is elevated from merely being aesthetically beautifully to meaningfully engaging with the nature of sexual fantasy and the intricacies that exist within a dominant/submissive relationship. Although she is the submissive, Evelyn controls their encounters and she methodically writes these intricate role-plays down for Cynthia to memorise and enact with specific times for everything. “Wait up to five minutes before you answer the door.” Evelyn wants their games to escalate but Cynthia has her reservations. Their relationship starts to deteriorate as the season changes from autumn to winter. Knudsen gives a spectacular performance as Cynthia, nervously re-reading her instructions and practicing her lines for their role play and giving the character a palpable warmth. D’Anna gives an eerie and cold performance as Evelyn, a woman driven to live out her sexual fantasies day after day yet who clearly loves Cynthia in her own way.
Named after a type of moth, The Duke of Burgundy features moths and butterflies as central motifs. The rooms of the tastefully furnished house have moths and butterflies mounted in frames upon the walls. Cynthia is an entomologist and Evelyn shares some of her passion for the subject. This is a film deeply concerned with visuals and it casts an enchanted and hypnotic spell with its lush costumes and sets. Cat’s Eyes, an alternative pop duo created a spellbinding soundtrack that gives the film a slightly more modern feel. With strong performances from Knudsen and D’Anna, the Duke of Burgundy is a dreamlike, erotic film with a surprising amount of substance that is a pleasure to watch.