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Moths To The Flame: Peter Strickland’s The Duke Of Burgundy (2014) – Blu-ray review

April 24, 2015 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Baffling, amusing and enchanting in roughly equal measure, but Strickland achieves a rare originality, texture and thematic play.

1 Duke Of Burgundy

The Duke Of Burgundy
(Peter Strickland, 2014)

The Duke Of Burgundy is a hard film to categorise, but then so is its creator.  Few contemporary filmmakers are approaching cinema from such an oblique angle as Peter Strickland. In just three films, he has established himself as a director with a tangible aesthetic, but one that lies at the nexus of his myriad influences. Is he just left-of-centre of the mainstream or an evangelical disciple of the avant-garde? Is he serious about his affectations or having a laugh? Is he a true original or just a talented pasticheur of forgotten corners of vintage cinema?

In truth, he’s all of the above, and The Duke Of Burgundy thrives on getting tangled in Strickland’s web.  On the surface it’s a homage to early 70s erotica (or ‘Euro-sleaze,’ as Strickland delightfully refers to it in an interview amongst this disc’s extras), especially the lesbian-tinged melodramas of Jess Franco.  But there are also nods to the surrealistic sex of Luis Bunuel and David Lynch, the editing strategies and anthropological hobbyism of Peter Greenaway, the life of Cynthia Payne… but all of its pretensions are undercut by a slyly wicked humour.

It starts simply enough: a cleaning lady, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) is compromised by her haughty employer, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a writer of books about insects, and punished in true S&M fashion – 50 Shades Of Burgundy. Only gradually does it become clear that the truth is more unusual: Evelyn is no cleaner but the co-owner of the gorgeously crumbling country manor they inhabit, the action a constantly repeated form of roleplay. Yet even here Strickland undercuts our pre-conceptions of the relationships: who is more into the arrangement, and who is doing it out of romantic duty?

Curiously, it appears that the whole neighbourhood is populated by people in similar arrangements, with a local carpenter on hand to create any kinky objets d’arts they need – and not a man in sight. Each of them shares the central duo’s passion for etymology: a quirk that soon becomes an entire worldview.  The symbolism never rises above subtext and has no plot function (just as the title, a breed of butterfly, is never actually referred to on-screen) but one that draws attention to Strickland’s themes of transformation, variety and beauty. Forget about ‘flutter by’ cliché, though: these ladies are more into the ugly side of the genus, favouring strange burrowing moths who are the insect equivalent of the underworld life these two lead.

What follows, then, is a rom-com twisted out of shape, with Strickland getting laughs from the way that this odder-than-odd couple interrelate. The performances are exceptional, with the initially stern Knudsen gradually presenting a weary melancholy, and the ‘victim’ D’Anna having a remarkable passive-aggressive rage when not being victimised to her satisfaction. “Put more conviction into your voice next time,” she hisses – and the film plays with its repetition, creating endless variations on the routine of co-habitation. Just as life here revolves around ropes and corsets, are their master-and-servant rituals a comfort or a prison?

Satire, then, but it’s still genuinely erotic, chiefly because Strickland is a master of his medium. The editing is astounding and lush; the score by Cat’s Eyes captures the undulating mood with languid but deceptively lethal folk; the is imagery ripe with décor and costume.  This contains one of the great credits, ‘dress and lingerie by Andrea Flesch’ because the latter, sexy but stifling, is central to the themes. The result is sometimes enchanting, but also nightmarish as Strickland rivals his earlier Berberian Sound Studio with disconcerting, deeply creepy sequences like an intense moment of on-screen infestation. That moment resembles the flickering film that breaks open in Bergman’s Persona, and indeed this is Persona with brunettes, a descent into duality.

The Duke Of Burgundy is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 27th April.  The gratifyingly Strickland-heavy extras include an interview, commentary and a very strange experimental short he made in 1996 about a pack of mischievous dogs.

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