The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

Poster for The Duke of Burgundy

This certainly is an enigmatic film. It’s a study of a sadomasochistic lesbian relationship, but it’s embedded in material about entomology with an uncertain connection to that relationship. It’s highly fetishistic and repetitive, with a languorous pace and chilly eroticism. There’s no nudity, but there are scenes that leave nothing to the imagination — even when you can’t actually see what’s going on.

It’s very clever in the way that it introduces you to the scenario and then gradually subverts your understanding of what you’re seeing. The power dynamics within the relationship are not what you think at first. While its very fetishistic and ritualistic, we do eventually get past the fetishes and rituals and scripts and into the uncertain, vulnerable feelings behind them. But at least in my case any understanding of what’s going on continued to be subverted, if not defeated, right up to the fade to black, when there’s a hint of a seasonal cycle that I don’t remember seeing any sign of before.

Again, the entomological aspect seems completely disconnected from the S/M story. The top, Cynthia, appears to be a entomologist who is perhaps writing a book or research paper. The bottom, Evelyn, appears to be a student. Between S/M sessions there are lectures on entomology that are very fetishistic in their own way. A weirdly rapt audience of women (and, in one pan, what looked like a couple of mannequins) listen to scientific exposition on the nature of various insects, with much attention paid to the shiny, black boots that one of the scientists is wearing. We also see glass cases of pinned butterflies and caterpillars. Occasionally we see moths hovering outside the windows of the house where the couple live and play. There are shots of larvae and beetles writhing and scurrying in the composting leaves of the forest floor. There’s a dream sequence in which Evelyn is engulfed in a growing swarm of moths that completely engulf the screen as well and then turn into an abstract montage of closeups of moth parts, all scored to ominous, creaky music.

Are the moths a symbol of blind, instinctual attraction? Is the scientific analysis meant to contrast with the fundamental mystery of sexual desire? The Duke of Burgundy is a kind of butterfly, but I don’t think that’s ever mentioned in the movie. I feel like I’m missing something very obvious in all this. At the same time the enigmatic quality of the film feels right. It is very stylish visually, with a strong sense of physical, material textures in clothing and furniture and skin. What we see is often occluded, reflected, refracted, doubled, overlaid. The two women are not conventionally beautiful, at least by cinematic standards, and perhaps this contrasts with┬átheir fetishistic attempts to project a certain image. The fact that they work from a script in their sex play also feels cinematic.

It’s all very strange. At times it felt a little cumbersome. Nothing really dramatic happens, although there’s a crisis of sorts. It’s more lyrical than narrative. I tried to see it on Valentine’s Day, but that didn’t work out.

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