The Duke Of Burgundy

| January 24, 2015

The limits of desire and fulfillment are dissected quite captivatingly in Peter Strickland’s latest film The Duke Of Burgundy.

The story takes place in an unknown town and in the rooms and gardens of a seemingly ancient estate.

There, Cynthia, played by Sidse Babett Knudesen, an assumed although never confirmed entomologist engages in a sadomasochistic relationship with her lover Evelyn, played by Chiara D’Anna.

Day in and day out the two women take on a set of altered identities, challenging one another’s notion of romantic love.

As Cynthia yearns for a more conventional relationship, Evelyn’s obsession with pain in sexual gratification turns to addiction and threatens to destroy them both.

Like the insects in Cynthia’s collection, the town and grounds of the home remain preserved in a timeless state; eras mesh, disorienting the viewer and making them question whether a new week or month has passed, or whether somehow we are reliving the moments of a single day, with perspective, dream and memory governing not just the passage of time, but its complete elimination.

To help create this environment, Strickland employed renowned director of photography Nic Knowland, whose work on the Quay Brothers’ films Institute Benjamenta and The Piano Tuner Of Earthquakes has established him as a leading cinematic world builder.

The story realm is dependent on subtlety and detail to enforce the thematic elements driving the narrative, and Knowland allows every shadow and patch of gleaming light to breathe life into the scene, so that the house, gardens and cobblestone streets inhale and exhale with the characters, making it seem as if these individuals living their lives may only be avatars directed by a greater force of existence.

Along with location, Strickland focuses on a variety of items that act as keys to unlocking the hidden desires of his characters; one of the most significant being lingerie.

Here, lingerie becomes a chrysalis, an essential ornamentation that acts as the tool of metamorphosis.

There is an identity intrinsic to lingerie that goes beyond sensuality, which like a cocoon, only relates to the surface layer. Perhaps most powerful is that the garment is emotion manifest, a crystallization of desire displaying the infinite incarnations of mood and want.

In that regard its abilities of arousal and emotional revelation surpass nudity.

Concealment elicits curiosity, and curiosity accelerates the feeling of need. Whether or not this ultimately reveals itself as vital to the individual’s survival is almost secondary. Something hidden becomes more desirous, especially if it’s presented to be within our physical or mental reach.

The women use lingerie almost in a ritualistic manner, the sacredness of the costumes allowing them to conjure and calcify passion. The cut and fabric of Cynthia’s outfits are catalytic, moving her and Evelyn into a plethora of personas constantly in competition, searching for the identity that will offer lasting satisfaction to both.

Lingerie embodies an evolution in flesh, a surface that is transformative and allows both the wearer and perceiver to transcend the bounds of physical space, and enter into a realm where passion creates the ideal of existence.

The film also examines the often overlooked power of the masochist over the sadist.

Pleasure is the objective of the sadist, but it is the pleasure and satisfaction acknowledged by the masochist that dictates and controls the relationship.

The sadist is a subordinate, an instrument gripped in pleading cries and thrust into the hungry orifices of pain and degradation.

The creative force belongs to the masochist, for the level and delivery of each expressed emotion is a guide, and without it the sadist would fall into aimlessness, an artifact swallowed up by the darkness.

Cynthia, in the role of sadist, administers the punishments but her acts and attitude are illusionary, a masquerade controlled by Evelyn. It is Evelyn who picks out the clothes and constructs the scene and character Cynthia is forced to play. It is an enslavement perhaps worse than mere physical bondage, for not only are her actions and words as this character controlled, but her entire being is held captive by the desire to please the one she loves.

If pain in this relationship is essential for pleasure, and neither pain nor pleasure are attained, then the emotion of failure is beyond pain, making the experience more devastating and dangerous.

What Strickland is ultimately able to accomplish is providing a convincing illustration for the most mysterious recesses of the subconscious, and allowing us to reconsider the perceptions of identity and what it is to love.

The film is now playing at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in West LA and at IFC Center in New York. It’s also currently available on VOD.

About the Author:

Matthew Vasiliauskas is a graduate of Columbia University. His work has appeared in publications such as Conjunctions, Berlin’s Sand Literary Journal, Chicago Literati and The Pennsylvania Review. Matthew currently lives and works in Los Angeles.
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