The Grand Charade of Life, Love & Death: Peter Strickland’s THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY
There are two general methods to discussing love and death and neither of them are adequate. One is through art and prose and the other is through scientific study. The words and phrases we use to describe ambiguous concepts like love and death reveal only the fact that we don’t really know what either of these things are. Their intangible, metaphysical nature alludes any sort of clear definition that doesn’t delve into scientific banalities. A scientist can boil emotions, sensations, and thoughts down to chemical reactions occuring within our brains and transmitting messages to the other parts of our body. But the sensations that are caused and their subsenquent consequences hint at something much deeper and mysterious.
As much as we can study our own behaviors, feelings, and psychology, we still can’t really explain these intangible concepts unless we go into vague poetic metaphors. When we discuss love we can’t express it in any way other than the fact that we feel its happiness and its pain. When we discuss death, we can only talk about the biological decay that the physical body undergoes following it and the loss we feel from its absence. The rest is like dark matter.
Ambiguity is a strong and unpleasant thing for most people. Humans crave patterns and closure and ambiguity gleefully deprives us of both. The need to know something for sure is a nagging and itching sensation that haunts a lot of people. I know it does for me. I was never sure if it was hereditary, because my grandmother was an incredibly nosey person. Waiting for texts back, test scores, responses from interviews, emails that never get replies, these are the sources of nerve-wracking fidgityness that can ruin my day.
Yet, counter to all of this, ambiguity in cinema, in art, was always a great feeling. Perhaps it comes from the fact that it is being observed apart from oneself. That like the human brain studying its own workings we can study our own neuroses when it comes to characters and situations separated from us and in a fabricated world. We can watch and examine love, time, and death without partaking in it first hand, giving us a context from which to relate, but away from its dangerous mental and physical pains.
Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy throws us into the deep end of its ambiguity from the beginning. It doesn’t bother to set any stage or introduce any characters, instead forcing us to figure out everything on the fly while it prances forward at its own deliberate pace. Centered around two women, Cynthia (Sidse Babbett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), whose relationship seems to be that of master and maid but switches on and off into that of two lovers, the movie toys with our expectations of how relationships work.
The term “relationship” in the film is the center of its equivocation. Using montage quite liberally, Strickland pieces together Cynthia and Evelyn’s roles in each other’s lives through actions and words which taunt and tease. Evelyn sheepishly trots around scrubbing and cleaning the large home, occassionally being bossed rudely by Cynthia. The next minute she stares paralyzed by the sexuality of Evelyn’s undergarments soaking in soap. At night, they make love. In between all this, there are lectures on moths.
The motif of moths is perhaps overused in cinema that centers around pathology, death, and general philosophical topics surrounding darkness of human nature. Moths are considered much darker, terrifying and more maligned than their butterfly counterparts. From undergoing metamorphosis as a transition from infancy to adulthood, to unpredictable patterns of flight, strange colors and textures on their wings and body, and of course, the hypnotic fixation on light they are fertile ground to build metaphorical connections to the strangeness of the human psyche. Moths signify not only a practical part of Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship (the latter is a student of the former in the subject), but also infiltrates the fabric of their sexual acts.
The design of the couple’s relationship is formed piece by piece but the line between its truth and fiction remains invisible. We find out early in the film that their daily rituals are a fraud, an act which is dictated through a series of notecards written by Evelyn to Cynthia. Love itself has become a game of guessing. In similar fashion to Anthony Schaffer’s Sleuth, the psychological manipulation that the two characters engage in with each other is never fully outlined from one scene to the next. The audience is left to imagine and wonder whether the role-play is occurring or not. As they both share a bed in the morning, Cynthia passionately expresses her love to which Evelyn simply replies, “talk about the other things.” Is this a genuine communication or a direct order?
As discussed before, love is a concept we can only really communicate via how we experience its happiness and pain. Evelyn becomes a manifestation of this throughout the film as her innate desire to feel is what forces more drastic and dangerous Dominating behavior by Cynthia. This need for tangible, physical experiences as a form of communicating love is how differently wired Evelyn and Cynthia really are. It also showcases that their relationship is less than the sum of its parts.
Death is also teased and danced around. A lack of sexual fullfillment inches Evelyn closer to drastic measures of sexual arousal. Her insistence on being locked in a chest makes Cynthia worried. This psychosis starts to tether their relationship, and the structure of their daily routine becomes more and more a power struggle, eventually breaking. When Evelyn recites the safe word, pinastri, Cynthia chooses to ignore it.
The intercutting and montage of imagery in the film underlines that Cynthia and Evelyn themselves do not understand the boundaries or the guidelines of their love. It is clear from the ritualistic nature of their sexual role-play that Cynthia is merely going through motions that Evelyn finds erotic. Cynthia’s actual interest is the concept of genuine love, which Evelyn seems incapable of unless it plays to her particular sexual fetishes.
Augmenting this role-play and theatrics is the fact that Strickland’s imagery, which he states was inspired by the gothic decadence of Juraj Herz’s Morgiana, places Cynthia and Evelyn in an ambiguous place and time. With one foot in what seems like the contemporary European country and the other in a hallucinatory fairy-tale, the movie’s self-awareness of its own charade deepens the fraudulent, synthetic nature of the love it depicts.
The Duke of Burgundy’s portrait of love, sexuality, and death leaves these at their base individual elements; sly looks, eyelashes, curves, wings, underwear, skin, hair, locks, chains, ropes, shadows, reflections, candles, lips, and heels. The movie is a red velvet cake deconstructed into its raw ingredients with Strickland’s camera keenly focusing on notions and gestures that hint at something whole but like our concept of love and death themselves, are left floating in ambiguity.