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The Duke of Burgundy

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jan 23, 2015
A scene from 'The Duke of Burgundy'
A scene from 'The Duke of Burgundy'  

Writer-director Peter Strickland's film "The Duke of Burgundy" is a strange bit of lesbian erotica, elegantly presented and throbbing with anxious discomfort.

The film is exquisitely framed and composed and moodily lit by cinematographer Nic Knowland, who has an eye for texture, be it ranks of butterfles pinned up in museum-quality mounts, or frilly underthings swimming delicately in soap suds. The story is a different matter, being flinty and nocturnal in effect.

The film begins with a maid's tardy arrival at an aristocratic household. The maid, dark-haired and tentative, is named Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna); the contemptuously dismissive redhead who puts Evelyn though her paces while lounging with a book and glass wine is Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Their relationship is icy, brittle, and charged with sadomasochistic overtones. When they set aside their master-servant roles and engage genuinely, it's clear a rapport exists; but Evelyn, a glutton for punishment, is reluctant to accept tender sentiments from Cynthia, and tensions ignite between the women when Evelyn starts looking to have her taste for submission addressed through more and more revolting means -- some of which, like a proposed "human toilet," leave Cynthia clearly dismayed.

Then there are the prospective suitors with whom Evelyn might pursue extracurricular fulfillment, including a furniture maker specializing in bespoke pieces with niche appeal (Fatma Mohamed) and an etymologist known to Evelyn and Cynthia thanks to a nearby scientific research library where the women attend lectures delivered and attended exclusively by women (with the occasional female mannequin). When the steamy proceedings boil over into jealousy, the dialogue follows suit: "Did she punish you?!" an enraged Cynthia screams, upon hearing from a surly, disapproving servant (Monica Swinn) that the entomologist in question, a Dr. Fraxini (Eugenia Caruso), has had her boots polished by a willing Evelyn. (The guilty rejoinder? "No... she just told me off a bit!")

Cynthia's study of moths, butterflies, and other insects serves the film's dark subtexts. Mysterious creatures fly by night, pursued by the curious Evelyn with a lantern and invading Cynthia's uneasy dreams; larvae and tree roots undermine the foundations of the grand old house where the women live. It's all a little too Freudian, but the score, by Cat's Eyes, is both creepy and timeless, as is the production design. (What year is it, anyway? It could be the 1920s; it could be the 1940s; in the end, it doesn't matter.)

There's a horror movie vibe about "The Duke of Burgundy," but the sex stuff isn't the source nor the target. The horror stems, rather, from the shifting power differentials, the dissatisfactions, and the insoluble ambiguities that plague Cynthia and Evelyn, just as they beset any relationship. Bring a sweater to this film, because you'll need something extra -- not just your sweetie -- to fend off its chill.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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