‘Duke of Burgundy’ is a royal pain

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You might assume that a film, bearing the title, “Duke of Burgundy,” chronicles a French aristocrat in Medieval times. However, the name does not refer to the sovereign of the duchy of Burgundy, but a species of distinctively patterned butterfly.

The misleading title is a portent of the confusion, intentionally created by the film’s narrative. In the opening scene, a seemingly mousy, young female, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) rides her bike to an elegant villa. As she arrives, the door opens and she is greeted by a stylishly dressed, middle­-aged woman, Cynthia (Danish actress, Sidse Babett Knudsen). Rather than offering a salutation, Cynthia barks out a stern denunciation, “You’re late!”

They adjourn to a living room. As Evelyn sits down on a couch, Cynthia upbraids her, citing the fact that she wasn’t given permission to do so. Evelyn springs up and stands at attention.

Evelyn begins cleaning the beautifully appointed house, which is full of antiques and objets d’art. This isn’t some perfunctory dusting, but a daunting, labor intensive task. Evelyn is down on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor with a brush. Meanwhile, Cynthia sits in a comfortable stuffed chair, reading a book, as she imperiously hovers over Evelyn.

After a grueling day of cleaning the house, Evelyn advises Cynthia that she is done and is about to head home. Cynthia indignantly insists that she has more work for her. Cynthia demands that Evelyn do her laundry. Evelyn meekly acquiesces to the demand, but asks that Cynthia instruct her on how to operate the washing machine. However, Cynthia insists that Evelyn must clean the laundry by hand.   When Evelyn completes the additional task, Cynthia berates her for doing a poor job and failing to clean a piece of lingerie.

All this is a prelude to a vignette in which Evelyn is reduced to being Cynthia’s sex slave.

At this juncture, the viewer may reasonably conclude that Evelyn is Cynthia’s exploited maid, who is compelled to only clean the villa, but also perform sexual favors for her boss. Cynthia seems to be subjecting Evelyn to unrelenting debasement.

The next day, the exact same chain of events is repeated, replete with the exact same exchange of dialogue. It becomes apparent that Evelyn is not a maid, but someone who is acting out an elaborately choreographed, daily charade. In it, she is assuming the persona of a lowly house cleaner. It is designed to assuage Evelyn’s need to be punished and demeaned. Cynthia is not Evelyn’s boss, but her live-in lover and an enabler of her fetishistic appetites.  It is Evelyn, not Cynthia, who is choreographing the parameters of their interactions.

Evelyn also expresses a need to be bound and locked up in cramped, coffin-like box. She insists on sleeping there, rather in bed with Cynthia.

Cynthia turns out to be an eminent authority on moths and butterflies, including the titular Duke of Burgundy. We witness Cynthia delivering a lecture at a local museum, which is attended by an exclusively female audience. Indeed, throughout the film, there is not a single male character. Do Evelyn and Cynthia live in an isolated community, populated by an exclusively female population?

This is the third feature film from writer/director, Peter Strickland. He exhibits considerable skill at shot construction and creating an atmospheric setting. He is considerably less successful at illuminating what drives his characters.

The much ballyhooed, studio film, “Fifty Shades of Grey” has just been released on over 3,000 screens. By contrast, “Duke of Burgundy” is a small budget indie, made on an estimated $1 million budget. It has had a very limited release in select art house theaters. While “Fifty Shades of Grey” involves a heterosexual couple, “Duke of Burgundy” focuses on a pair of lesbians. However, each film portrays a dominant-submissive, sadomasochistic relationship, replete with an explicit erotic element.

I believe that consenting adults are entitled to do whatever they please in their intimate lives. Both “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Duke of Burgundy” involve characters, who are supposed to be emotionally intimate, not mere partners in certain erotic practices. I found it disconcerting that there was no evidence of any affection between the putative paramours of the respective films.  Both films involved protagonists, who remained studiously detached from any emotional connection.

“Duke of Burgundy” has elicited widespread critical praise and received numerous accolades. This included the Jury Award at the 2014 Philadelphia Film Festival.

I do not share the prevailing enthusiasm for this film. Although “Duke of Burgundy” is meticulously crafted, it is a royal pain.

**1/2 No MPAA rating 104 minutes

A screen caption from a trailer to the film "Duke of Burgundy."

A screen caption from a trailer to the film “Duke of Burgundy.”

 Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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