There are some films we see and call pretentious. Others see those same pictures and exclaim their brilliance. The Duke of Burgundy, written and directed by Peter Strickland, is such a film.
It is saying something; it tells its tale in a way that abrades its audience, though, and by intention. Whether you’re willing to exert yourself to extract the contained information is up to you. Whether the film is worth that effort is up for debate (as always).
Supreme Being loathed it. I, in contrast, drifted in and out of its imprisoning bed like a subjugated lover.
The Duke of Burgundy dresses itself in the complicated lingerie of a 70’s sexploitation boudoir tale — think Emmanuelle — and one that titillates with bondage & dominance. Indeed, the film is all about sex, but not in a way that relishes exposed skin, or which is only skin deep. The Duke of Burgundy aims to engage you in consideration of your own complicity in enacting and enforcing relationship roles, regardless of gender.
Yes. That does sound awfully intellectual for a sex film, doesn’t it?
Strickland, like in his earlier Berberian Sound Studio, arrays his subjects with intensity. Here the women — and they are all women — become affixed in his lenses like insects to a board. This is more than deliberate; it is essential. It may also be pretentious, but that’s another way of saying either ‘misunderstood’ or ‘not worth understanding.’
Chiara D’Anna plays the young, fetching Evelyn. This delicate nymph lounges amid the leaves beside a babbling brook before bicycling to the stately stone home of her employer. Light shimmers and focus softens, the music is farcically alluring, and the locations and costumes unsubtly suggest the timeless land of steamy sex that many would identify as France in the days of Bridgette Bardot. This is the world of The Duke of Burgundy, once you add in omnipresent insects and enthusiastic subjugation and degradation.
It is the sort of film that includes in the opening wryly-derivative titles both credits for “Perfume by” and “Human Toilet Consultant.” Please leverage that information to evaluate your appetite for what’s within. They are both jokes, and not jokes.
Evelyn works for the domineering Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who takes apparent pleasure in humiliating her maid. As with the sexploitation films on which this one riffs, subjugation surely drifts to the sexual. Evelyn on her knees, scrubbing. Evelyn deserving punishment for failing to properly purify Cynthia’s soiled panties. Punishment takes place behind closed doors, but that’s where the crew likely required the services of a human toilet consultant.
And this unseemliness is the first lurch away from Emmanuelle and towards the corrupted wrongness of Berbarian Sound Studio, or — if we’re reaching — Mulholland Drive. These lurches come with off-putting irregularity and they rarely linger on or evoke erotic sexuality. Instead they wriggle into the confining spaces between lovers, pushing them apart and roping them together.
You are my slave and that enslaves me to you. Make me your slave and I will luxuriate in my prison of humiliation.
Alongside this intricate pas de deux Strickland shows us the world that enables and encourages such perversity. In his film, he avoids explicit gender politics by peopling the never-world solely with females, and female entomologists at that. It’s not about men and women; it’s about lovers.
Outside of Cynthia’s fantasy castle/dungeon, women do nothing but scowl from neighboring chateaus and attend fetishistic lectures on the proper classification of insects. Bugs, in The Duke of Burgundy, offer perspective on the lifestyle and behavior of the film’s bipedal subjects.
The film is filled with fluttering moths, and squirming larvae, and walls of worms, and butterflies, and nymphs pinned to boards, framed for inspection. We are, Strickland suggests, odd creatures with complicated life-cycles, drawn compulsively to the light.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes the sumptuousness of the sound and the color and popping of opalescent soap bubbles strings you along, like a doomed Eurydice. Other times it pulls too hard, too far, and stumbles into pseudo-mythical malarkey, such as when we literally travel into a dream contained within Cynthia’s crotch.
Watching The Duke of Burgundy, I struggled to make meaning of the imagery and suggestion contained. That sounds critical, but it’s also a backhanded compliment — since I felt the film worth struggling for as opposed to simply abandoning. Strickland is on to something about the way we force our lovers into narrow categories, as if we can be classified and identified and affixed. His use of the sexploitation genre, too, well suits his impish intent. I am fond of his mischievous manipulation of image and sound as well. As a film, however, Duke of Burgundy felt an ungentle lover. Like its story’s inverted dominatrices, it forces its captive audience not to suffer subjugation, but to accept our own culpability in the subjugation that underpins society.
It asks, point blank, if we are eagerly taking instruction in how to classify and thereby control the objects of our fascination, or if we are nothing but mannequins sitting dumbly while the men and women of the world get defined as mine and yours.
The ways in which The Duke of Burgundy did not work for me; those are the ways in which it intended to provoke. So the question is not is the film pretentious, but are you interested in being provoked?
I cannot say I liked The Duke of Burgundy, or how long it kept me locked in its prison. I am less ready or willing to commit to whether or not the film is powerful, pretentious, or intentionally both. It is about the illusion of control, frame by frame. Without each other, we would have no masters and no slaves. The film may be your master, but only if that’s what you demand of it.