Sometimes I watch movies with my mother, and she had to endure many challenging films thanks to my insatiable interest in various kinds of movies. During one late winter night of 2012, I happened to revisit David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (1986), and my mother was there when it was being played on our DVD player. Watching that infamous scene between Isabella Rossellini and Dennis Hopper, she asked me with the bewilderment she often had during our movie time, “What the hell are they doing on the floor?”
I am pretty sure that she will be confounded by “The Duke of Burgundy”, a peculiar but compelling film about sex, fetish, and insects. Simultaneously elusive and fascinating, the movie tantalizes us with its distant but elegant style and atmosphere, and it works as a superlative pastiche which transcends its trashy source of inspiration. While having lots of fun with many offbeat aspects of its strange setting, it delves into the kinky relationship of two different women having a little domestic problem between them, and the result is an intriguing mix of wry humor and delicate sensitivity to amuse and engage us.
The main background of the movie is an unspecified British rural town in the middle of autumn, and you will notice a number of odd things here and there in this small town. It looks like the late 20th Century on the surface, but the characters in the film do not seem to have cars (they usually walk or ride bicycle), and we do not see much of the outside of the town except the bucolic forest surrounding it. In addition, we do not see any male character in the town which does not seem to have many residents, and the movie does not particularly bother to explain this weird aspect to us at all.
In such a familiar but alien environment, the private relationship between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) looks like a conventional one. Before the main play in their bedroom, they go through a series of sadomasochistic acts as their foreplay after Evelyn comes back from the forest. Cynthia, a middle-aged lepidopterist, tries her best in playing a cold, mean mistress not so pleased by her maid’s sloppy works, but it is apparent that she is not particularly stimulated by this even though she wants to give whatever her young lover desires. Although they surely have a good time with their eventual sex, Cynthia begins to feel dissatisfied with their relationship which seems to approach to the stage of ennui just like many other relationships between lovers, and both Cynthia and Evelyn see that they need something to energize their sex life.
Many amusing moments in the film come from how they try to add more spices to their sexual routines. Evelyn gives Cynthia very detailed instructions on how Cynthia should abuse and punish her in their next trial, and she also suggests another kinky act as something new to try. At one point, a certain kind of expert comes to their house, and we get a deadpan conversation scene as Cynthia and Evelyn discuss with this expert on a special contraption for their bedroom. It looks like their sexual taste is not so uncommon at least around their neighbourhood, and the expert later suggests a funny alternative when Evelyn is very disappointed to learn that she will not get her bedroom equipment as soon as she wishes.
Meanwhile, Cynthia keeps focusing on her work while often assisted by Evelyn, who shares the same academic interest with her (the title of the movie comes from a European butterfly species which is usually found in grassy areas and woodland clearings, by the way). Reminiscent of William Wyler’s “The Collector” (1965), the walls of Cynthia’s office are covered with numerous specimens of moths and butterflies in display, and we cannot help but notice how exquisite they look in their fine, colorful appearances. There are also the recurring scenes showing the academic meeting held periodically at a local institute where Cynthia works, and we see Cynthia and other researchers reporting on their recent researches on moths and butterflies.
Although the movie is not very clear about what exactly those lepidopterological details represent or symbolize in the story, the director/writer Peter Strickland makes it sure that these moths and butterflies function as the main component of the tantalizing mood established well in the film. While his previous film “Berberian Sound Studio” (2012) was a mind-bending psychological horror film which paid a homage to the Italian giallo films during the 1970s, “The Duke of Burgundy” tips its hat to those cheap European sexploitaion films during the same period, and their influence on the film is instantly recognizable right from its tacky main title sequence which will take you back to the 1970s through its mellow main theme song. With his tongue-in-cheek spirit, Strickland deliberately makes his film look cheap at times, and I was especially tickled by how he lets us notice something quite obvious in the background while the camera pretends to focus on Evelyn and other researchers listening intently to Cynthia’s presentation.
Of course, as you can expect from a film inspired by skin flicks, there are plenty of scenes involved with its characters’ erotic impulses, and the movie handles them in tastefully erotic ways while never going too far with its carnal details. Looking sexy and attractive whenever that is required, the lead actresses Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna keep their complementing performances straight to the materials they have to handle, and their nuanced acting holds our attention even when the movie goes wild along with their characters’ increasing emotional uncertainty during its second half. Faris Badwan and Rachel Zeffira, who are mainly known as an alternative pop duo “Cat’s Eye”, provide an intentionally old-fashioned score which works effectively during several key scenes in the film, and the cinematographer Nicholas D. Knowland presents a number of oddly beautiful moments amidst the peaceful atmosphere of autumn forest on the screen (the movie has the most beautiful shot of laundry water I have ever seen recently, for example).
One’s fetish can look pretty hilarious to others, and “The Duke of Burgundy” exemplifies that well with its sly amusement while also recognizing how seriously its characters care about their emotional matters. In the end, as reflected by the eventual change of season around the ending, they come to see that something must be changed in their relationship in one way or another, but is that really possible for them? Anyway, one thing very clear to them and us is that old habit seldom dies easily.