It’s 43 years since Brando and Schneider taught the world a new use for butter and in that time as cinemagoers we haven’t advanced much. Either the audience I just happened to witness Fifty Shades of Grey with is the most repressed in history or that cluster of titterers and whisperers was indicative of a wider cultural problem. We live in a time when, for all its popularity and love of dealing with real issues and historical figures, the cinema stumbles when it comes to representations of carnal behaviour. Or, when it gets sex right, it sits across a great divide from the average cinemagoer.
Sexual behaviour in film has always suffered a messy and undignified place, from the once-controversial, now soap-opera-convention Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate to the Mail-baiting, leg wound-fucking Crash in ’96. For all its dodgy implications, the Fifty Shades phenomenon and subsequent backlash has at least pushed aspects of sexuality long shrouded in the darkness of taboo and perceived degeneracy into the blinking sunlight of polite society, where they can be better understood by John and Jane Doe. And now with better understanding will come a willingness to accept more nuanced and interesting studies of fetishism, power dynamics and gender politics (trampling Mr. Grey’s perfectly tailored suits under foot along the way). The man in the gimp suit and ball gag is on the croquet lawn now, and he isn’t going away.
All this is to introduce, in a roundabout way, what is in my eyes the best film to deal with sex since the confrontational yet electrifying Nymphomaniac last year. While Nympho was truly controversial (in an era when everything ostensibly is), The Duke of Burgundy doesn’t need such an explicit appeal to our subversive natures to demand attention. In fact compared to Nympho and Fifty Shades, Burgundy seems positively restrained, choosing the erotic over the explicit, the gentle over the gang-bang.
Peter Strickland’s third feature directorial outing (not counting his recent Björk concert film) truly establishes him as the continuation of the clique of 1980s British cinema darlings (Stephen Frears, Terence Davies, Peter Greenaway, Alan Parker et al.), treating low-budget, low-key studies of troubled characters in confined quarters with an artfulness far surpassing these basic ingredients.
Detailing the relationship between a dominant lepidopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her submissive maid Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) in a world decidedly divorced from the real (no specified timeframe, no males in the film save moths and butterflies, and everyone in the village is apparently gainfully employed at an entomology institute), Burgundy revels in vagueness and suggestion, underpinned by Nicholas D. Knowland’s exquisitely delicate and devastating cinematography. In the exteriors, he focuses his lens on the Borowczykian forests and fields and dominance of nature over Cynthia’s house; for the interiors, multiple shots through windows, keyholes and net curtains inject the requisite erotic tension, while the juxtaposition between the leads’ increasingly complex relationship and the base nature of pinned butterflies point to fractured mental states akin to Persona.
But this is not a film detailing psychosis. Burgundy is a tribute to and elaboration on European art films of the 60s and 70s, specifically those by Jess Franco (Strickland even cast Franco regular Monica Swinn), and the handling of eroticism could all too easily slip into late-night Red Shoe Diaries territory were it not in the hands of assured filmmakers. The film is smarter than that. Like a mature version of The Naked Gun, Burgundy reserves its wit and parody for the opening titles (“Perfume by Je Suis Gizella”) and closing credits (which lists in its cast every moth and butterfly in order of appearance), providing viewers with just enough indication that the film isn’t to be taken 100% seriously while still showcasing the genre-adept knowing of Strickland.
Beyond the arch and artificial elements, though, lies a very human story. These two women, clearly lacking in social interactions beyond each other (and the woman who makes their very specific ‘relationship aides’) are both very much codependent, regardless how the power dynamic initially seems to position them. As the film deliberately progresses, it becomes clear that the subservient Evelyn is the only one who enjoys this aspect of their relationship. Cynthia reluctantly spends every day reading and reciting and reenacting Evelyn’s script of how she wishes to be dealt with, the exhaustion and disinterest unhidden yet indistinguishable to the self-absorbed submissive. The question at the heart of the film seems to be whether or not their relationship can survive this facet, and as that is something never discussed, it appears their lack of communication is going to be a significant hurdle even after the bittersweet, faintly optimistic ‘conclusion’.
To avoid disturbing too much in the way of the film’s secrets, for the unfamiliar, I have am refraining from venturing too far into Burgundy‘s depths. The intricate layering of folk-tale, submission, nature, and female sexuality though, is unfathomably recommended. It is a solid, significant achievement, a marvel of modern British cinema with arthouse, confrontational substance and yet a sensibility as fragile as a butterfly’s wing.