Peter Strickland is on the verge of something big. His last film Berberian Sound Studio, was awesome, and his follow-up, The Duke of Burgundy is just as good.
The Duke of Burgundy starts methodically and ambiguously. It’s (intentionally) difficult to get a read on the characters at first, but stick with it, and the film goes places. At first blush I thought it was going to be something close to Losey’s The Servant, and while it has that master-servant relationship and power play at heart, Strickland’s is an animal of its own. The director has developed such a gorgeous style that’s wholly, and uniquely his own.
Two women – Evelyn (Chiarra D’Anna) and Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) – live alone in a mansion. Their relationship and sexual games gradually become strained.
The first notable thing about Burgundy: there’s not a man in the film. On top of that, the locations are few, and claustrophobic. It’s a microcosmic, whimsical world, featuring an all-female insect-intelligentsia, and the setup is so fantastical that it makes anything seem possible. The world is so intentionally false and that’s echoed several times throughout the film.
In one sequence, where Cynthia gives a lecture on butterflies, Strickland’s camera tracks past two mannequins in the audience. They’re in the background and out of focus, but they’re there:
It’s never commented on. This world is fake (whether magical-fake, or stifling-fake…that depends on the scene).
The movie is also about acting. Who is playing a role and who is playing themselves. This is brought home in a a perfect shot. Cynthia in medium close-up looks towards the camera. She removes her wig and false eyelashes-
-and then exits frame (stage) right.
She’s in a film and a play. The film is for us. The play is for Evelyn. Nothing in this world is real.
That the world seems so malleable makes danger possible and apparent. In a nightmare sequence that takes place between Cynthia’s legs (you read that right…it’s the best male-imagined personification of sex or cunnilingus since Almodovar did it in Talk to Her), though nothing of menace has happened, violence is printed all over the scene, largely thanks to the dreamlike setup we’ve encountered thus far.
Strickland uses butterflies as a metaphor throughout the film. They’re shot beautifully in extreme close-ups and often in slow-motion, and have a pretty clear function as it relates to the narrative. They’re very pinned:
Or they’re very free:
Ultimately, Burgundy is about decaying relationships and power struggles. Those moths and butterflies represent that quite well. Strickland even works a Stan Brackhage Mothlight homage into the film, using ECUs on butterflies in rapid-fire to both pay tribute to the great experimental work and to intensify the metaphor.
In fact, Burgundy very nearly becomes truly experimental for its final act. The last 20 minutes or so are about sensation and feeling (much closer here to Brackhage than Losey) rather than narrative, though the film does close in a plot-driven, circular way.
Strickland uses a lot of bright reflections center-frame, often out of focus and eventually taking over the entire shot:
These are ephemeral, mysterious moments that seem to suggest some freedom just outside of the otherwise mythical world he’s created.
This feeling is the opposite of the extreme close-up inserts-
-and frequent reflections-
-both of which keep us locked into the small spaces of The Duke of Burgundy by emphasizing the tight quarters and the internal nature of the film.
I’ve talked on this blog before about profile shots. In fact, I mentioned it recently in this post on Run Silent Run Deep. There’s something similar going on here. Evelyn, in a dream/nightmare goes to the balcony at night and looks over, just barely seeing Cynthia in the distance:
There’s a cut to a profile after that:
I thought this was curious. The profile really doesn’t add anything new. I don’t get much of a reaction from Evelyn, and the new frame doesn’t allow for any new information to come across otherwise. Strickland clearly isn’t following the Walter Murch rules of (to paraphrase), ‘cut to advance the story.’ This feels like a psychological edit, and I think there’s evidence in other films than these two that not only is the profile itself mysterious, but the cut to the profile, amidst two otherwise narrative shots, is all the more nebulous and esoteric. It’s sort of an internal break from the narrative.