When the poised Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) opens the door to the small, timid Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) we enter into their relationship and their love affair based on role-play, submission and dominance. At first we believe Cynthia to be the dominating partner – she is ordering Evelyn as soon as she opens her door, telling her to hand-wash her delicates, scrub the floor – but once her red wig is removed she is exposed as the more tender, submissive of the pair who is acting out Evelyn’s fantasies in a repetitive cycle.
Cynthia’s study is filled with butterflies in glass cabinets – as befits a Lepidopterist – yet of the two women she is who locks away her feelings, resisting the urge to break free from Evelyn’s constraints as a butterfly emerging from her chrysalis. It is Evelyn who is in control, the manipulator of their scenarios, and Cynthia’s is merely her actor who she projects and directs onto her stage of titillation. The older woman’s eyes crave a relationship free from the rigmarole of dressage and formality, yet her younger lover’s gaze is eager, hungry, wanting and when her demands are refuted her eyes brim with tears and her lips quiver as would a toddler whose demands have been resisted.
Strickland has created a world that straddles the line between erotica and 1980s Cadbury’s Flake advert and the lack of nudity and all female cast emphasises this quality. It is sumptuous, yet has that almost surreal element that is emphasised by the entomology angle of the film (the Surrealists were fascinated by the study of insects). Add to this the climatic, dream/nightmare sequence that appears to erupt Butterfly’s and the carpenter whose bears more than a passing resemblance to Marilyn Monroe (including beauty spot) and there are more a couple of comparisons to Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
Despite its appearance of art-house grandeur and aloofness the subtle humour and wonderful leads prevent The Duke of Burgundy from being over-pretentious. With dialogue that sways from the traditionally kinky “you were caught polishing her boots!” to the oh-so-ridiculous-it must be true “would a human toilet be a suitable compromise?” you know that the film is something rather unique and it is very difficult not to be captivated.