It’s London Film Festival time and, since my boyfriend is a massive movie buff, that means for the next two weeks I’ll be seeing a film every night and sometimes as many as three films in a day. The first film I went to see last night was The Duke of Burgundy starring the imperial looking Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna (who was styled like the character Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks). I was interested in seeing this film as it was directed by Peter Strickland whose previous film was the bizarre and atmospheric Berberian Sound Studio. What’s so striking about this director is the way he uses sound and music to trigger the viewer’s imagination and cause submerged emotions to well up out of the darkness.
The Duke of Burgundy is set in a seemingly fantasy world on a rural palatial estate overloaded with dusty books and entomology specimens – illustrations of insects and cabinets filled with pinned moths and butterflies decorate the rooms. The scene opens with Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) arriving at the house and being swiftly told off by the woman who appears to be the mistress, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). What is established as a strict and formal atmosphere is swiftly turned into something else altogether as the plot twists to show this pair has a very special sort of relationship. What on the surface appears to be a stark ordinary reality is revealed to contain falsehoods. For instance, during a lecture hall session about the characteristics of insects, a slow panning shot records the bland expressions of the attentive audience and reveals this group is partially made of dummies.
It took me a bit of time to get into the mood of this film. I have no doubt some people will find it controversial or might consider it to be just about titillation – although the type of people who go to see art house films like this probably won’t feel this way. At first, I thought it was all a bit of a gimmick and just revelling in being a tale about kinky lesbians. But gradually a subtle sort of humour is introduced and this brought a welcome dimension to the film. It also introduced a complication as I think it’s a little pat to have a story about a sub-dom relationship where it’s all revealed to be strained, a bit ridiculous and unsustainable over any extended length of time. Certainly this is the case in many kinky relationships, but I don’t think it makes a very interesting story line.
What is interesting, where this film really excels and the thing that makes it a memorable experience is the way it artistically portrays the way desire, the sexual imagination and love function in relationships. It sounds harsh, but any romance is a kind of lie that the people involved are complicit in perpetuating. The truth is that nothing binds two people together no matter how fiercely they declare their love or bond themselves in public displays of matrimony. It’s all just words. And a few words like “I don’t love you anymore” or “I’m leaving you” can blow it all away. Yes, there are sincere emotions and chemistry which keeps people harmoniously together for many years and that’s a beautiful thing. But, beneath it all we remain solitary individuals trapped in our own heads and slaves to our own desires. It’s natural for love to waver over time.
The Duke of Burgundy portrays the way two people grapple towards a sustainable relationship making allowances for each other’s transforming needs. This is portrayed in subtle glances between Evelyn and Cynthia. They voicelessly yield to each other’s whims – sometimes grudgingly and sometimes indulgently. The play for power is the way they establish that one person still cares for the other – that they are willing to make sacrifices when needed and stymie the gluttony of the sexual imagination – or, in fact, pander to it. It’s about the way relationships are bound together through mutual respect and caring. It acknowledges the tension and the essential unknowingness of the other so that this vulnerability turns into a source of strength. Through long shots of seemingly placid expressions and bleakly-coloured sets the seriousness of these women’s exercises in lust is established. Imagery of fluttering moths or slow-moving insects shows the way desire inveigles itself into the texture of the couple’s relationship. The sound of heels clicking on wooden floorboards or the gasp of someone choking on fluid ricochets within the imagination of the characters and the viewer. It not only creates narrative tension but makes us aware of the tension in their relationship.
This is a fascinating, arresting film that left me pondering its meaning long after leaving the cinema. It’s like Jean Genet’s play The Maids crossed with Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “Solstice.” It was a great way to start the film festival for me as it’s the kind of challenging movie which won’t make it into the mainstream.