‘The Duke Of Burgundy’ screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center from Friday, May 1st until Thursday May 7th.
Any projected theatrical feature film that has opening credits featuring the perfume used on-set creates some pretty lofty expectations. The credited brand, Je Suis Gizella, probably doesn’t actually exist, but director Peter Strickland already knows nostrils will be subconsciously flaring in anticipation nonetheless. The film, superbly odd and visually evocative, is The Duke Of Burgundy (UK / Hungary, 2014), an intriguingly perverse and erotic psychological character study of two very fascinating women. How they met, how they wooed, how they settled in…? Not here. Not the issue. Part of what’s great about this film is how quickly the insular world Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) have created for themselves is established; every day, Evelyn bicycles through the small, quaint European village, cheerily waving to acquaintances and arriving at Cynthia’s small but lush cottage. Cynthia is a well-established, well-off entomologist who has taken on Evelyn as an everyday “housemaid.” Evelyn turns out not to be so great at housemaiding, and (tsk, tsk…) Cynthia must punish Evelyn for her shortcomings. Evelyn lovingly submits, and Cynthia is lovingly in charge, taking deep personal satisfaction in being so. So much, in fact, that she lets Evelyn write the scripts and scenarios of their daily assignations. Evelyn submits on Evelyn’s own terms, much to Cynthia’s satisfaction, as long as it’s on Cynthia’s terms. But… wait… ahhhhhhh, OK… Now we know what the movie’s about.
One note I should make right now is that there’s no nudity, and actual sexual activity, conventional or kinky, is either glimpsed fleetingly or placed offscreen altogether. There’s real heat and real passion, but the film is not about the sex – it’s about everything surrounding the sex: the personalities, the negotiations, the atmosphere, the clothes, the devotion, the tolerance, their assumed social positions, the firmness and/or surrender. Cynthia and Evelyn enact these dramas with and for each other in the same way the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter plays the Brahms Sonatas, over and over and over, the way Tony Bennett sings The Good Life, over and over and over – because there’s always something new to be found, there’s always another detail to unearth, always another new feeling to share. This is rich fodder for literature, theater, music, film, and our own real lives; from Jean Genet’s The Maids, to Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie, to Peter Jackson’s Beautiful Creatures to Nancy Meckler’s Sister, My Sister, intelligent and sexually vibrant women devise their own conduits to personal satisfaction and intimate connection – sometimes gratifying, sometimes annihilating – informed by, and informing, their very identities, their intrinsic sense of self (or mutually-connected selves), sometimes out of love, sometimes out of elemental necessity. The obvious stylistic parallel here is Jess Franco (God bless ‘im – the prolific and execrable Spanish exploitation hack who cranked out so much scattershot work that a few actually-watchable films emerged from the murk – also see stopped clocks, typing monkeys…); the Soledad Miranda star-vehicles Vampiros Lesbos and She Killed In Ecstasy (both 1971) are visually plundered here, and well, but I would expand that to include a number of other films of the seventies as well, from directors Dario Argento, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Sergio Martino and Tinto Brass, and actresses like Anita Strindberg, Edwige Fenech, Evelyn Stewart and Dagmar Lassander.
Strickland’s previous film, Berberian Sound Studio (which is also a very good film) is often lauded as an homage to the Italian giallo film; I would argue that BSS’ film-within-the-film, The Equestrian Vortex, is in no way, shape or form a giallo. It’s a horror movie made in Italy, but giallo is a very precise term, not to be squandered. The Duke Of Burgundy is a far truer evocation of giallo films than the previous, but don’t get me wrong – it’s wonderful that Strickland draws inspiration from those films, and then subsequently makes his own unique work from them.
There are a few instances where Cynthia and Evelyn accompany each other in public, most notably to a series of entomology lectures that Cynthia participates in, authoritatively. Evelyn makes a point to ask the other lecturers annoying questions, knowing this makes Cynthia squirm. And Cynthia can’t help but notice that her lecturing contemporary, Dr. Schiller, wears notably well-polished black boots. Evelyn… ?! What are you up to…? Again, who is doing what to whom, and on whose terms? (“The Duke Of Burgundy,” by the way, is a species of butterfly [hamearis lucina] particular to Great Britain.). Strickland, with the talented cinematographer Nic Knowland, knows what the hell he’s doing, visually and narratively. Cynthia and Evelyn’s wonderful meeting with The Carpenter (Fatma Mohamed), a purveyor of specialty items for discerning and knowledgeable Bondage and Discipline aficionados, is a little clinic on camera placement and close-ups, concessions and salesmanship, and he wields obvious rapport with his terrific actors. His (their) visual approach is extraordinarily artful, and the visual narrative is well structured throughout. But don’t think Strickland’s tasteful artfulness is an excuse to shy away from the subject matter – there’s a reason Cynthia drinks so many glasses of water…
This is a unique and excellent film, with two superb performances from its talented lead actresses, from a very talented up-and-coming director. When his next film becomes the hipster triumph that everyone claims to have ‘discovered’ at Sundance, or Telluride, or Toronto, you should be able to say, “Well, no, I saw Berberian Sound Studio, I saw The Duke Of Burgundy, and it’s about time everyone else figured this guy out…”