Film Review: The Duke of Burgundy, by Cameron A. Straughan

The Duke of Burgundy WOW Kent

‘The Duke Of Burgundy was both a fictional pub in the classic Ealing comedy ‘Passport To Pimlico’ (1949), and additionally, happens to be the name of a certain species of butterfly found only in England.

Far from a film about a friendly neighbourhood pub, or an educational chat with David Attenborough, the 2014 incarnation of ‘The Duke Of Burgundy’ is encased within a potent atmosphere of unease, sexual tension, twisted eroticism and dark humour.

As if viewing a case of mounted butterflies, we watch the action unfold into a truly cinematic experience that demands the close observation of everything before us. The butterfly metaphor is at risk of overuse – having been exploited in ‘The Collector’ (1965) and in The Smiths lyric “You can pin and mount me like a butterfly”, yet it is revisited to great effect here.

The film observes the daily routine of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). Like insects pinned down and encased under glass, we observe them trapped in a provocative routine that starts with punishment and pleasure and ends with a crumbling emotional facade. As Cynthia yearns for a more conventional relationship, Evelyn’s obsession with erotic role-playing threatens to push the two apart.

‘The Duke of Burgundy’ is a unique voyeuristic experience courtesy of Peter Strickland, the award winning writer and director of ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ and ‘Katalin Varga’. In this work, Strickland returns us to the European cult movies of the 1970’s.

It’s refreshing to note that while many recent directors seem to be emulating the crowd-pleasing visuals of The Wachowskis, Lynch, Tarantino or Snyder, Strickland is enthralled with Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Jess Franco and Sergio Martino – with a pinch of Bergman. To a certain degree, Strickland’s themes and visuals may also owe a debt to lesser-known Euro-cult gems like ‘Baby Yaga’ and ‘Daughters of Darkness’.

Anyone familiar with the cinematic lineage of ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ will know how essential a good soundtrack will be to the film. Many of the original Giallo and Euro-sleaze films were sound-tracked by the likes of Ennio Morricone, Bruno Nicolai and Goblin.

The film benefits greatly from a soundtrack by Cat’s Eyes, an alternative pop duo featuring vocalist Faris Badwan – of English indie rock band The Horrors – and Italian-Canadian soprano, composer and multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira (sounding rather like Lynch favourite Julie Cruise). Having played their first ever gig in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, the duo are the perfect choice to compliment Strickland’s retro Italo-thriller imagery. The opening credit sequence is an especially good mix of sound and image recalling the era perfectly.

If the overtly commercial eroticism of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ leaves you cold, then head down to ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ and drink in its intoxicating brew of dark, atmospheric erotica.

The Rochester Film Society will be screening  ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ on Tuesday 16 June at 7:00 pm. For more information please see the WOW Kent listing here.