The Duke of Burgundy : A Film Review

Dir. Peter Strickland, UK, 2014. Cert. 18. 1hr 44mins.
Cast. Sidse Babette Knudsen, Chiara D’Ana.
Cherií as in Burgundy
Some strong hints, in fact heavy hints are deployed by Writer and Director Peter Strickland in positing his films theme.
It is a poor and lame set of metaphors unnecessarily deployed.
The simple fact is most viewers relying on this inroad to the story are not in need of this engagement let alone the subject plainly central, the sum of insects and chiefly the butterfly are infuriatingly numbing.

The sole characters are, save a few lecture hall speakers and a distant neighbour given to leaf sweeping are Cyntia, a dominatrix role playing Lepidopterist – that of said butterfly motif, by Sidse Babette Knudsen, and Evelyn, played by Chiara D’Ana, the younger hireling.
It is almost a costume drama as the clothes Sidse wears are vintage decent decadence and poor Chiara gets to don the simple peasant dressing befitting her sub-servant role. You can never be certain what in the spaces between is offered as equalityoutsideof the roles.

The only thing not depicted in metaphor or on the deployment of graphics is the possibly phallic slim antennaed body of the butterfly pairing the stations of the dual wings. The absence of maleness is opening of the forebearing recurring receptiveness of the gynaeceum. The host and house.

An Ottoman becomes the house. Becomes the chamber and is deployed into action in the more illuminating scenes of relationship needs.
The levels of entry to the story are vexed and misshapen male concepts reporting on the female attitude to her sexual role. That role is well evoked in some of the sado-masochistic approaches.

Both women wish to experience the interior lives of their own sexuality each needing different urges to be satiated.

The Fall to Winter
Now it is the season of love, a love for all seasons is as inextinguishable. For most encounters encountered are inhabited timelessly making anything possible if one closes another season of loves fervour responds to the sun or moon also rising. The Duke of Burgundy opens in the fall.

The landscape is European. The atmosphere is surreal. It is dense, forested, isolated, with in the choice of cinematic excursion here set in Hungary. The place able to offer the unusual heightened but faded opulence with a strangely unregarded temperature. Clothes are mere adornments, uniform for signatory place.
So it is excusable, given the subject of love, to begin with an Audrey Hepburn anecdote. The one – according to Hepburn herself, of her discovery when she was stationed with the 1952 film production company of ‘Monte Carlo Baby’ in the south of France for brief location filming, the fairly unnoticed assignment part of a standard contract. Hepburn at the time little known after the Armistice in a European film industry devastated by World War II. This week her co-star in ‘Gigi’ Jean passed away aged 93.

The springboard for exploring the relationship between two women is the entwined shared domesticity and setting found in all relationships eschewed or avowed. Either that or the external issued fan tasty world of ‘Gigi’ were one the fabric is lifted on demand and at a price. Similar fantasy role play is engaged here in this film taking its name from a rare butterfly.
Is there a further feminine Cher, Central France it’s being Bourges?

Cheri is the colour of Burgundy. The least said about that apocryphal use the better. It didn’t appeal on any level as a movie device.
Was it in the least necessary as the thoughts and portrayals were – when you leave and set aside thoughts of the butterfly – more productive.
Butterflies may be ephemeral and beautifully corporeal but that is baggage whereas this film has two sets of thought contesting each other’s extent of loving.

The loving felt is at its tenderest in the bed and touching is singularly a recovery for their relationship. It is also a place of command and struggle but is a place of recoiling physical bonding.

Colette chanced to see the young Hepburn walking across the lobby of the hotel and immediately said to her companion of the moment, “There is my Gigi!”
Colette whose 50 something novels were the French antidote to war and they created the ‘Belle Époque’ world as escape and no one came close to the wise naturalé, evocative, erotic, gravitas with which the French traverse as a fine line between hypocrisy and cant and are able negotiated inside and outside reality, with of course due recognition to Colette.
Léa, in what some regard as the finest of all novels Chéri she demonstrates all the survival skills which Colette associates with femininity which this Duke of Burgundy lesbian affair courts by introducing us to an (unknown?) element of seduction and control which is another inbound s+m chase.

Butterfly Error
The negotiation of romance, intrigue is the whole quotient vessel filled to near overspill in the tumbling dice world of The Duke of Burgundy.
It may involve the fragility of a butterfly.
In the acting of role play inevitably, given time, given devotion, flaws creep in and that grates alike with the viewer and the pair. The imperfections show up the love and utter dependence on this device as a focal part of their loving. It exposes the dynamic a little but not the intrinsic belonging which obviously exists between them.

Perfection is often implied as a goal and the butterfly has this consciously but, well, it’s best left alone. Go onto pleasure in its messy way seems to be one outcome, one possible learnt path on which we happen to tread.

Filmmakers find little to do when love making is underway except use genitailia as the excursion trip without being inside or outside the carriage.
Therefore the use of nudity is ignored so we can use the imagination from early on and absorbing the style of ‘reveal’ the author has chosen.

The actors are blessed with separate forms of beauty. One waif like, suitable to play the submissive. The other more mature, more curvilinear, suited to the solid mind games.

It is where pornography lives, repeat the feat, repeat the feat, are you finding this repeatative, but without the porn. This film does repetition in an entirely provocative way and through strangeness.

Bound over
Colette has given her characters feelings recognised everywhere, by that literal skill she deployed in life and literature. “What a beautiful life I’ve had.” Is her reported reward despite her later life being wheelchair bound.

Feminine Guile
The Duke of Burgundy is not an old fashioned tale of courtesan and pupil.
The femininity is capital currency taken at a slowness, the Milan Kundera slowness lovingly French again, with space and air between the bodies sufficiently involved to suspend, put time away.

One leads, petit mort, the Colettish murder of the passion enflamed.
It is one who leads who falls into the trap set by the victim who in the words of Bukowski suggests ‘Find what you love and let it kill you.’

The game awaits
Ways is there. There never is anything but a complicit and propulsion for the sexual frisson to take the external internal. Have a same word and act out the game. Who is the finest? Who loves the most in whatever role? The play you need to find the deepest pairing without measure is what challenges them? To know how far it can go.

This is a game based film. The erotic of an internal but visually consumptive union replaces repeative sexual performance that film after film produces as the literal filler content. Seed planted, bread rises. Will you do that again? Also the written story they have constricts their reaching their goal.
It is not that straightforward.

Firstly do not ask. It is not for you to ask. You need to listen for the instruction. Do it again. Then the previous interaction is repeated.
Same timeline, touch, pace, continuity precisely as before.
Here it is marked on the floor. The scene has a theatre direction, the Film Director aware of the frame line as well as the entire appearance.
It is exquisite compelling controlled love and the ultimate join up.
Sometimes I found myself analysing the occasions went outside, the nature and occasional v shaped frames of the descending stairs, steps down from the house. The wide cinema and the dense heavily wooded body of the frame.
Does the film work?
Perhaps it does but it is at times very structurally slow. It through the narrative of role play accounting for nearly two thirds of it highly repeatative. The descriptive tale told is of the proximity of the antecedents of the developed and developing relationships and who chooses the effects physical and mental. The music by ‘Cats Eyes’ is Schrodingers Cat. It is at times excruciatingly over indulgent as soundscape as are the clouds of the flights of insects. Overblown.

Is it quotidian?
Certainly the beauty of the spaces in which these beautiful habitations are not. The quotidian is the place in the minds seeing what eaches need is.

Conclusion. ###3.
What is a film without a few kinks?
The strangeness of certain relationships are worth looking at for how well drawn they are as explorations of unique sexuality.
To communicate this simple two woman chamber piece ponderously slow, repeatitiveness is almost pathological. Prudent in dialogue and each character, I don’t recall even a name for the principles, – they have them of course, Cynthia and Evelyn – the butterflies get the names is unfortunately for me not convincing but a worthy attempt and anti-dote to other cinema treatments gotten into with the self same subjects.
It is very, very watchable with the portentousness of over visually satire like? approaches it becomes relatively indulgent.
It is not markedly English or European even. The book I am reading currently is Henry Fieldings, Joseph Andrews and Shamela (1742) which is full of firm settlements and ejectment all in the course of a virtuous life sought. The plainer it is written the more complex it’s direction becomes and is well equipped for our own obedience to our times?

The playing is tangentially cool and neatly if not inescapably drawn – they are after-all actors acting people acting role play. A candour exists.
A safe word exists! The actors have the burden of constraint heaped upon them unfortunately but deal with it decorously, methodically and beautifully.

Love sometimes passes you by. Only when its past will it become clear?
Can I leave that as an note from which to seek your own tuth?

I’m off to see if I can find where the Chalkhill butterfly, (its one in a frame above their bed) lives it’s short life.

John Graham

19 February 2015


Opening at QFT Belfast this Friday 20 February through to Thursday 5 March 2015