The Duke of Burgundy: The corset and the butterfly
by David González
- Inventive British director Peter Strickland establishes himself as a creator of cinematic delicacies with this impenetrable, sensual and enigmatic study of emotional detours
It was in 2012 when Peter Strickland, who was at the time only known for the Romanian drama Katalin Varga [+see also:
Interview Peter Strickland - Director …
film profile], pounded his fist on the table and made something as unique as Berberian Sound Studio [+see also:
film profile]. The British director burst open our eardrums, retinas and, while he was at it, cinemas with an experiment that was as avant-garde as it was nostalgic: starting from the baseline of the giallo genre, or rather what lay behind it back in the 1970s, he was able to take the elements that constitute the experience of watching a film and refract them through a prism bristling with tension, fascination and bewilderment. In his new film, The Duke of Burgundy [+see also:
film profile], which was presented at the most recent Toronto Film Festival and is now being released in French theatres, Strickland continues to bank on the same strategy: creating little cinematic toys that the viewer can play with… until the toys themselves start to play with him or her.
The toy that concerns us here is one that takes on this shape of a refractive prism, and contains two female characters, Evelyn (Chiara d'Anna) and Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). What initially seems to be a toxic relationship between the owner of a house and a maid soon turns out to be something more complex and much deeper: they are lovers, and a sadomasochistic affair blooms between them that guides them through all the reflections – those of the mirrors in the house as well as those of their emotions. Indeed, it is that very house, those emotions and the codes that the couple use in order to give free rein to their dark fantasies which constitute the limits that lend the movie its in-camera nature; the story unfolds within them. The fetishism that fuels it mysteriously seems to become even more powerful thanks to the apparently humdrum hobby that unites them, the studying of butterflies (the Duke of Burgundy is another name for the Hamearis lucina), so that these insects become a key element of the film. Their delicateness and beauty, and the fact that they have been captured, channel the nature of the movie, while their appearance simultaneously serves as a recurring element that acts as much to break up the narrative as it does to set the requisite boundaries for it. The Duke of Burgundy is, very nearly, a corseted butterfly.
It is within this state that Strickland finds the creative freedom that he has flaunted in his most recent works: with greater subtlety than in Berberian Sound Studio, he makes the story (which, as a matter of fact, becomes part of the background) explode at certain moments during which surrealism swamps its stylistic choices. From the retro aesthetics of its initial musical sequence (accompanied by music by the alternative duo Cat's Eyes and some impeccable cinematography courtesy of Nicholas D Knowland, with the extremely high quality of both not faltering at all during the whole running time) up until its delicate conclusion, via the sudden and nightmarish detours in the middle, the images overlap with each other, create textures and reflect complex and disconcerting feelings, but ones that are also very agreeable. The film, produced by Rook Films, which is run by his colleague Ben Wheatley (the director of Sightseers [+see also:
interview: Ben Wheatley
film profile] and A Field in England [+see also:
interview: Ben Wheatley
film profile]), represents the irrefutable evidence that Strickland is one of the seventh art’s great craftsmen.
(Translated from Spanish)
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