THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY: Some Thoughts

I don’t have quite a review, more some thoughts about The Duke of Burgundy. I loved it from the opening credits, which are as gorgeous as Berberian Sound Studio‘s. Where Berberian Sound Studio (2012) explored and played with the conventions of giallo, The Duke of Burgundy is grounded in the forms and conventions of European erotica from the late Sixties and Seventies. It is gorgeous, as both Berberian Sound Studio and Strickland’s first film, Katalin Varga (2009) are. The soundtrack is an intriguing mix of scoring by the band Cat’s Eyes and field recordings of insects, including the mole cricket (which has become quite popular here at Vanguard). There are beautiful shots of insect and butterfly specimens and diagrams. One segment is an almost kaleidoscopic display of butterfly wings as seen through a microscope. And just as beautifully composed shots of orthopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babette Knudsen) dressing and applying her make-up, composing herself for amateur lepidopterist Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna).

I think that The Duke of Burgundy subverts its genre in its quiet way. There are no men present in the film, no male gaze or point of view to relate with, and the only evident male presence is the male mole cricket recording Cynthia listens to. And it isn’t even a pointed male absence. It is, as Jordan Hoffman points out in his review, just the world of the movie. “The movie exists in a world without men, or automobiles or vocations/activities other than delivering or attending lepidoptera lectures.”

“Off to another lepidoptera lecture at the institute!”

That world of riding bicycles and attending lepidoptera lectures on endless golden autumn days is tremendously appealing. And god knows, I am looking for a Queer cinema with scientists in love–and hopefully some Danger: Diabolik-style Queer lady cat burglars. But with The Duke of Burgundy, the setting, the lectures and the cycling becomes so much more present for me than the kink, which becomes almost mundane as we see it from different perspectives and in changing contexts.  The kink portrayed is a way of exploring not just their relationship, but the way that fantasy is negotiated in relationships and how relationships, like D/s scenes and films, have their scripts. It’s also kind of fascinating to me that a film with such concern with structure and form, not only in Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship, but in the presentation of the narrative and in film’s visual and aural structures can be so intimate and compassionate.

But where I think The Duke of Burgundy is truly subversive is in its presentation of Queer women, Lesbians and Lesbian relationships. I have seen a lot of Lesbian films, films about Lesbian relationships and films with Lesbians in them intended for a straight audience. The Duke of Burgundy is one of the few that I think people will watch in the future not as a historical curiosity about how women’s relationships with women were portrayed, but as a film exploring the give and take of making your partner happy without making yourself miserable and balancing happiness and fulfillment in a relationship. But with kink, specially designed furniture, lectures about butterflies and mole crickets.

(Read my interview with The Duke of Burgundy director Peter Strickland here)

This post was originally published on the Toronto International Film Festival’s Vanguard Program Blog.

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