Film Reviews

The Duke of Burgundy Peter Strickland

Rating - 9/10
Peter Strickland's latest sensuous nightmare, The Duke of Burgundy, matures in metered breaths before fluttering into the ineffable caverns of psychosexual dominance and submission.  Like a lost chapter of seductive '70s cinema characterized in its flowery opening title fonts and color-coded photographic effects, the film clings to the evocative moods of Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Louis Malle's Black Moon (1975), and Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972) with claustrophobic echoes of Kafka's Metamorphosis.  Intertwining naturalistic sights, sounds, and smells (even a redolent French perfume credit, "Je Suis Gizella") with themes of feminine sexuality, manipulation of personae, and the cycles of love and loss, its stimulating approach concurrently lends it to the devices of Shane Carruth's utterly modern Upstream Color (2013).  The Duke of Burgundy's elliptical cocoon/chrysalis shape ravishingly traces the interplay between a hermetic middle-aged lepidopterist, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudson), master of an opulent gated estate of ambiguous time and location - presumably early 1900s Europe - and her petite, compliant student-turned-maid, Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna).
Nic Knowland's cinematography fetishistically regards the senses with recurring close-ups of plush carpet, polished leather, exotic wood, sculpted wigs, soap suds, frilly lingerie, flowing hosiery, and winged creatures taxidermied under pristine glass.  Compounded with hallucinogenic double-exposures and choreographed pans/tilts through the corridors of Cynthia's flat, the film utilizes texture to forecast moods and the reflexive character psychology than any kind of traditionally discernible plot.  However, the exquisite sound design that brought to life Strickland's frightfully funny Berberian Sound Studio (2012) isn't neglected; field recordings of various insects are isolated like magical mating calls that quiver above the hauntingly anachronistic compositions by Cat's Eyes (the duo of Faris Badwan and Rachel Zeffira), a bit of a cross between a Michael Nyman score for a Peter Greenaway film and Air's atmospheric score for The Virgin Suicides (1999).  The band's blend of strings, classical harpsichord, woodwinds, and ambient synthesizer with Zeffira's wispy Julee Cruise-inspired vocals reaches an ecstatic and operatic high in the film's ritualistic denouement.
Although the commencing autumnal scene at a placid spring in the forest near open meadows suggests a meditative outing, an ensuing bicycle ride takes Evelyn from the murmuring waters to the oppressive confines of domestic servitude, study, and hibernation.  Aside from Cynthia's routine lectures at an undisclosed hall on species of moth identification through sound and image, mirroring Strickland's methods to define his characters, the film is primarily concerned with the interior of the house as a means to burrowing deeper into the interiors of the individuals' fears and desires.  What begins in clearly designated dominant and submissive role-playing slowly morphs into something more sinister than kinky as if Cynthia and Evelyn's identities are transferable, conjuring Bergman-esque associations.  Even in acts of submission, the film is really a timeless space for the flourishing and dominance of women with an exclusively female cast; but, in The Duke of Burgundy's oblique structure, the director also teases, with most eloquent transitions receding from sunlight and tunneling into darkness, a fading fantasy about the laments of love (and bondage).