Peter Strickland — who directed and wrote this film — also made In Fabric and Berberian Sound Studio, two movies that felt like they were not of our time. This movie isn’t just in the world of Jess Franco; it was nearly a remake of the Spanish director’s Lorna the Exorcist.
The difference is that where Franco would make smut and say — not all the time, but enough — that it had political or literary reasons beyond just flesh, this is a movie that cloaks itself in the language of exploitation but is a romantic story about two people trying to remain in love when the opposites that attract them start to feel like they could all be too much.
Strickland even discussed the films that inspired this: Les Biches, Belle de Jour, Fox and His Friends, Marta, The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant (which also inspired the poster for director Kevin Kopacka’s Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes), Terry and June, Mano Destra, The Image, The Lickerish Quartet, All Ladies Do It, Venus In Furs, A Virgin Among the Living Dead and Lorna the Exorcist. He referred to Franco’s “very dynamic, very unique beautiful films” and “hypnotic trance,” which is so much of the reason why I keep watching his movies.
In The Duke of Burgundy, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is the teacher of Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) — the class is lepidopterology, the study of butterflies and moths — and while Evelyn is the maid in her non-classroom hours, she is really the submissive to Cynthia’s dominant side. But the truth is that Evelyn is always topping from the bottom.
The couple re-enacts the same scenes day in, day out — BDSM is nothing if not ritual — with Evelyn scripting Cynthia’s role to her satisfaction. Evelyn gets off on their play; Cynthia worries non-stop and keeps worrying that she’s screwing everything up.
At night, Evelyn asks Cynthia to lock her in a trunk as mock punishment, which ends up bothering Cynthia in two ways: the physical separation upsets her and it reminds her of her age, as she hurts her back moving the heavy trunk with her lover inside it.
On Cynthia’s birthday, Evelyn takes her displeasure out on her by making her bake her own cake, then she eats it while rubbing her feet all over her younger submissives face, not even stopping at their safe word. This is when the true nature of a bad relationship reveals itself in BDSM; Fifty Shades of Grey was not a rough lover. It was a man taking advantage of trust, which is even worse in the context of a master-slave relationship. Again — the very nature of who is in charge in these relationships can be debated.
Cynthia begins paying attention to other teachers and Evelyn becomes depressed. It’s only when they attempt real communication that any progress seems made, even if the film ends with both playing the same roles and the same ritual and the same games over again.
Between the in and out of focus, the lighting, the colors and the way the film takes the feel of the sexual — without ever becoming base and crass — this film feels like Franco, except that it probably cost more to make than every film from Jess’ last two decades of filmmaking put together. I do love that the strange neighbor woman is named Lorna and played by Monica Swinn, who was in twenty of Franco’s movies including Shining Sex, Barbed Wire Dolls and Female Vampire.
What does the title mean? The Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina) butterfly was given that name for reasons unknown, or as Matthew Oates said in his book In Pursuit of Butterflies: A Fifty-Year Affair, any reasoning being lost in the mists of entomological antiquity.” That bit of insect intrigue makes sense seeing as how this is a movie that has the Featured Insects in Order of Appearance in the end credits.
A movie with no men, two women in love yet struggling and one that is actually sexy without being clinical, The Duke of Burgundy is a film that more need to see.
You can watch this on Tubi.