That The Duke of Burgundy’s release falls within a week of a certain other sadomasochistic soap opera is probably no coincidence (get them while they’re still hot), but the association does Peter Strickland’s filthy-but-tender love story a disservice.
We are first introduced to Evelyn, a maid whose sadistic mistress Cynthia forces her to complete demeaning tasks such as hand-washing her dirty underwear. Cruel and unusual punishment for perceived failings invariably follows. Except it soon becomes apparent that Evelyn is a more than willing participant; in fact it is she who is the driving force, and Cynthia the increasingly unwilling party who longs for a more conventionally loving relationship.
From the playful credits onwards, it’s clear that this is a surreal, insular world about which we understand little. It appears to be set in a rural European village centred around a female-only entomology college, possibly some time in the 60s or 70s, but it’s impossible to know for sure. One thing we do know is there are no men around, or even refered to. Strickland’s refusal to anchor his film in space and time gives it a dreamlike quality, the same events repeating over and over, teaching us more about the characters each time (extra layers of complication are added by actual dream sequences).
Moths and butterflies (the title is a species of the latter) are a recurring motif, perhaps a reflection on the hermetically sealed universe in which Evelyn and Cynthia reside, pinned and mounted for inspection like the insects they study.
First published in City A.M.