Peter Strickland’s previous film Berberian Sound Studio used very considered, almost avant garde imagery and editing to show the inner workings of the mind of a man going mad in a foreign environment. For The Duke of Burgundy Strickland has carried these ideas over wholesale. But in telling the story of a lesbian couple who engage in role-playing and BDSM, the benefits of this style don’t seem so obvious. They come across more like affectations, as if Strickland has invented a style but has boxed himself into it.
The world of The Duke of Burgundy is almost better described in terms of tones and images than in plot. It is a world inhabited only by women, all of whom are obsessed with lepidoptery (study of butterflies and moths). The film follows Evelyn – who enjoys being the submissive partner – and Cynthia – who is less enamoured by the world of sexual domination than her lover. What plays out before us is Cynthia’s reaching her limit with the demands put on her by Evelyn.
At the heart of the film is an interesting dynamic between the lovers, who act out roles that are almost exactly in opposition to their actual relationship. But ultimately it all rings a little hollow. The lack of any plot forces Strickland to reveal the characters’ relationship in bits, but it never seems to be moving forward. It feels like being the shrink during a particularly laborious psychiatry session, where the patient is being purposely slow in revealing the details of her relationship. The content of this film could fill ten minutes if told conventionally.
But The Duke of Burgundy is not so much about content as it is about texture. Yet even here it is strangely lacking. One scene in particular in which Evelyn is walking down a hallway and is slowly enveloped in moths to the the point that the moth wings resemble cracking film, comes across rather artificial, particularly in the age of digital projection. It seemed Strickland was trying to emulate the scene in Persona, another film about the relationship between two women, in which the film itself actually starts to disintegrate while we’re watching it. In the digital age, the visceral impact of this is lost.
The Duke of Burgundy is restricted by Strickland’s reliance on his bag of tricks, and while it’s admirable of a director to want to do something different from the mainstream, that difference loses its edge when it’s different in the same way every time. The injection of a bit of movement would make all the difference to a film such as this. Perhaps Strickland should consider a road movie for his next directorial outing.
In cinemas 20 February. Watch the trailer here.