This review is part of our coverage for MUBI’s August’ 19 slate.
Focalised through the slowly waning romantic affair between two women, director Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (2014) is an intriguing examination of the theatrics of love. The film occupies an alternate plane of reality altogether — temporal markers are removed, only women exist, and all everyone ever does is attend lectures on butterflies or customise beds for those interested in S&M. Perhaps the almost surreal setting of Strickland’s film is a fitting match for the isolated romance at hand, which borders on consumingly solipsistic.
The film begins by establishing a clear power dynamic between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna from Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio). Evelyn is Cynthia’s maid, and nothing she does ever lives up to Cynthia’s perfectionist expectations – or so we think. While Cynthia seems to be the dominant woman in relationship as opposed to wide-eyed, nervous, and submissive Evelyn, the film soon reveals that it is Evelyn who sexually desires to be punished. She leaves detailed scripts around the house dictating how Cynthia should reprimand her, and willingly plays the role of the maid who never quite gets her chores right.
Their love affair is indistinguishable from theatrical performance — to the couple on screen as well as the audience watching the film. Out of focus shots, the persistent use of superimposed images, and asynchronous dialogue suggest that the lovers’ meticulously planned sexual rituals temptingly falls into pure fantasy. Love is exhausted of plot, and screenplay is no longer enough to sustain them both. Both women yearn for something beyond script, but aren’t quite sure what else is out there. As a lepidopterist, Cynthia studies fossilised butterflies pinned to the walls, but unlike the timeless beauty of the preserved insects, romance must undergo change. Nevertheless, both women stick to their screenplay, out of fear that they would lose control of their romance if they tried anything beyond it.
To this end, the film also acts as a meta-filmic commentary on the performativity of love. Just as Cynthia reads her lines off Evelyn’s script, the film is also written by this very same script. The lines between fiction, reality, and love are blurred. For what is love if not mere screenplay? Likewise, our understanding of love only makes sense within script – we have decades upon decades of narratives to tell us how love feels like, how it should be, and how it happens.
We do not instinctively love, but affirm what love feels like. Trapped in a suffocating bubble of decided conventions, it is no wonder that Evelyn and Cynthia’s love becomes sickly. Infidelity ensues, and punishment becomes very real for the two women. The Duke of Burgundy provides no answers to the reality of the love affair, but it certainly does show us how much of love is caught up in theatrics, and how little of it is actually authentic.
The Duke of Burgundy was released on MUBI on August 17th, and will be available for 30 days on the site. You can check out the rest of our MUBI Coverage here.