THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, UK, 2014, Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D'Anna, Monica Swinn, Fatma Mohamed.Directed by Peter Strickland. 104 minutes. Rated MA (Strong sexual themes and sex scenes).
The Duke of Burgundy is one of many moths and butterflies in this film, and one of the few male characters – the other males being moths and butterflies. This film is strictly and narrowly set in a woman’s world.
The director of the film is British, Peter Strickland (Katalin Varga, The Bernerian Studio), while the film was produced and made in Hungary with an international continental cast, led by Sidse Babett Knudsen star of the Danish television and internationally popular series, Borgen.
One of the central characters in this rather hothouse, art house drama is an entomologist, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, with a huge collection of moths and butterflies, doing research, presenting papers at the local meeting house, other presenters being women, the audience only women.
The writer-director clearly wants us to focus on the imagery of the moths, moths drawn to the flame, moths destroying themselves, the delicacy and strength of moths. The entomologist, Cynthia, is frequently seen using a microscope. And that is also an image for the film and the filmmaking. Strickland applies his cinema lens, something of a microscope, to observing the two characters, their interactions, strengths and weaknesses, dominator and dominated. This is a lesbian story.
The advertising of the film refers to a critic saying that it is 50 Shades of Grey for the thinking person! And that is not entirely wrong. While the focus on the two characters is intense and the theme certainly is sado-masochistic domination, it does not have the broader social scope of E. L. James’ story and the sadomasochism for the to multiplex audience.
The film opens with Evelyn sitting in nature, the trees, a babbling book, then going to a house, waiting for the mistress of the house to answer the door, which she very definitely is, and the maid, put upon by the mistress, spurned, criticised, made to do menial work and be accountable. Actually, while there are glimpses of trees, the film rarely goes outside the house except into the yard with the prying neighbour, and into the rather empty streets of the town and the meeting house.
When some of the scenes are repeated, the audience realises that all is not that this seems to indicate. Cynthia is the intellectual, the superior personality, bossing Evelyn around. Soon the audience sees that, in fact, Evelyn is the stronger of the two and that Cynthia is role-playing. Sado-masochistic complication comes when a local cabinetmaker, and a strong feminine character, comes to prepare a gift for Evelyn’s birthday and suggests a casket in which the partner can be locked away for long periods – which happens.
If the audience is drawn in by the situation, characters, the themes, they would be very patient as the film takes its slow pace to unfold its story and character revelation. Otherwise, many audiences will find it on the tedious and repetitious side (with a distraction, perhaps, that a violent car chase would not go amiss!). This means that the film has been acclaimed by many who admire the cinematography, the performances, the atmosphere, while others may forget it, feel distant and not be absorbed. Which is what cinema does.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Released September 10 2015.