Warning: Contains Spoilers
Essentially concluding Film4’s “Love and Sex” season (I’m not going to bother with “Lovelace”..!), this was a film that gathered a generous amount of critical praise and unsurprisingly, didn’t exactly show in major cinemas. Perfectly suited to somewhere like the Chapter Arts Centre, this was a film that I was very eager to watch and was definitely different from the film I was expecting.
OK, before I started watching, I assumed that this was going to heavily feature a central relationship based solely on domination and control with perhaps a few shocking, explicit moments here and there. While “The Duke of Burgundy” starts off this way, it cleverly goes in a very different direction, defies our expectations and gives us something unique indeed; ultimately, only a minimal amount of BDSM is actually included.
We begin by seeing Evelyn (Chiarra D’Anna) apparently going to clean the home of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), where the latter gives her stern orders, insults and generally mistreats her, punishing her when displeased. However, we soon discover that these women are actually in a relationship and that they were simply role-playing, Evelyn giving Cynthia specific instructions on what to do and how to act. From then on, we see that Evelyn has a compulsive desire to be dominated and humiliated, while Cynthia becomes increasingly uncomfortable with it all, struggling to keep up with her. Their relationship changes somewhat, with Evelyn, who initially plays the subservient role, actually becoming more of the dominant force in the relationship. And though all of this, there are plenty of images of butterflies. Don’t ask.
The main draw of this film is the fact that it is unique and it dares to think outside of the box; our initial expectations of the film are quickly subverted and it all turns around, giving us a story that is rarely told anywhere else.
So at the centre of all of this we have the pivotal relationship between the two very different lead characters. The incredibly unique looking Chiarra D’Anna plays the obsessive Evelyn; constantly wide-eyed and wistful she performs the role very well and she confidently makes us realize her desires and obsessions. And on the other hand we have Sidse Babett Knudsen; initially cold and harsh, we gradually see her inner turmoil, feeling increasingly uncomfortable with Evelyn’s behaviour while at the same time, desperate to keep her happy. She is the heart of the story and it is her struggle that we are most involved with. The chemistry between the two characters is perfect and the film successfully presents us with a very different kind of relationship to what we have seen in mainstream cinema.
This is a film famous for not having any male characters at all and ultimately, this is very refreshing to see. With not even a single mention of men at all, this gives the film an extremely unusual edge and contributes greatly to the film’s otherworldliness. On that subject, this film seems to take place in some unknown place and time, a strange place where men don’t exist, which could be taking place anywhere and anytime.
Music also plays a large part in “The Duke of Burgundy” and it is very praiseworthy indeed; courtesy of Anglo-Canadian duo Cat’s Eyes, it is operatic, haunting, gorgeous and contributes greatly to the film’s impact. The film’s score noticeably features the harpsichord and distinctive vocals, giving the film a gothic, European vibe.
In terms of “Family-friendliness”, I have to admit that this film is relatively tame, at least when compared to my initial preconceptions. There is actually no nudity at all and only a handful of scenes involving sex. In stark contrast to films such as “Nymphomaniac” and “Blue is the Warmest Colour”, this is actually a film that you could watch with a close family member. At the very worst, you may spend a few seconds wincing slightly in discomfort, but that is honestly pretty unlikely.
The film also includes a certain sense dark humour; watching Cynthia wearing pyjamas and high heels, trying hard to satisfy Evelyn’s compulsions, looking constantly uncertain and frustrated is very interesting indeed.
If I had to point out any flaws, I would say that the dream sequence towards the end, which features a barrage of CGI butterflies, kind of slows the film down a bit and doesn’t really add anything to the story. I am also uncertain as to why butterflies are featured so prominently in the story; it doesn’t damage the film’s impact, but this was an element that I was a bit befuddled with!
Overall, this is a strange, otherworldly and poetic film that thinks outside of the box and presents us with a very interesting relationship between the two leads.