Peter Strickland became the darling of the British film scene with the excellently received Berberian Sound Studio, his second feature. This film flirted with genre expectations, was constructed as an excellent pastiche of giallo film, and was led by a bold main performance from Toby Jones. So Toby Jones follow-up, The Duke of Burgundy, has a lot to live up to.
Cynthia (Knudsen) and Evelyn (d’Anna) are lovers whose interests include butterfly research and classification, and BDSM. As Evelyn’s taste for submission deepens and becomes more complex, Cynthia is unable to take the strain of the dominant role thrust upon her, and things turn nasty. As far as plot goes, that’s essentially it- Strickland’s film is all in the style. The women inhabit a world without men, where their absence isn’t noted or important. Everyone also attends these butterfly classification lectures, and BDSM gear also appears to be in high demand- a woman the couple contact to build a lockable compartment under their bed is so snowed under with requests that she can only offer them an 8-week turnaround and a ‘human toilet’ by way of apology.
The Duke of Burgundy, like Berberian Sound Studio, takes aim at another Euro horror genre- a psychosexual piece, like those turned out near the end of the New Wave. The film is all soothing tones, jaunty folk music, disruptive edits, and soft lens flares. This is more taxing on the viewer than the trashy shock of the giallo; with a plot already light on details, The Duke of Burgundy is at times torturously slow. Or, to put it more sensuously, languid, as the style Strickland’s adopted means scenes stretch, sequences repeat, and stares hold for a long time.
Another problem is that when pastiche and homage are too accurate or precise, they feel like parody. And Strickland is incredibly accurate in his riffing: the low-budget sensibilities of the genre area affected in him packing out a lecture scene with obvious mannequins, the film’s sensory nature so ingrained the credits feature a perfumer. This approach to pastiche becomes an echo chamber- always repeating ideas, never adding anything into the mix. A similar problem plagued Forzani & Cattet’s The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears; now The Duke of Burgundy does it for New Wave Euro-horror. It’s entirely possible for something to be so formal, so controlled, that it feels twee.
This is in part impacted by Strickland’s indecision with his own story. At times, it appears to be a real drama- certainly the honesty and craftsmanship in the performances (from two incredibly talented actors) shows real work on this approach, and as the women’s relationship breaks down, scenes become truly affecting. But mostly, Strickland seems content to allow his love for the genre he’s parodying to interrupt the story he could tell- an interminably long, heady montage dominates the later sequence of the film, swapping an interesting character dynamic and any possibility of meaningful commentary for stylistic flourishes. Endless symbolism and held stares are fun the first time, but are grating by the end of an hour and a half (which still leaves 15 minutes to go!).
Admittedly, it’s difficult to assess even whether this is the problem with the film. After all, we’re looking at a psychodrama, portrayed through one set of symbols, reinterpreted through a style cribbed from someone else. That any meaning at all can be gleaned from it is a testament to Strickland’s skill as a storyteller. Sometimes, though, you wish he’d just stand back for a moment, look at his story, and let the actors tell it. Perhaps the most revealing symbol in the film is the butterfly collecting: the main characters attend lengthy lectures on taxonomy, identifying individual species, and try to use mounts of rare varieties like currency. The same is true of Strickland, who is ultimately more interested in collecting and classifying styles, than trading them for artistic value, than contributing his own work.