Imagine someone gives you a birthday present neatly wrapped in a large box that you tear open. You peer inside only to find another equally gorgeous box sealed with a vibrant red bow. Untie the bow and inside that box you get an even smaller more stunning box. “Something good has to be coming,” you think to yourself. The suspense kills you until the last box is open and you discover it’s hollow and completely empty.
The Duke of Burgundy is analogous to this box. It’s visually stunning, immediately intriguing, and memorably stylized, but look past its superficial qualities and it is apparent that the would-be profundity of ambiguous symbols, enigmatic characters and loopy storytelling are nothing more than pretensions. This is a simple story that disguises its lack of depth with grand aesthetic embellishments and reoccurring visual motifs. What does that big black box mean? What do the butterflies that are displayed in the house symbolize? Honestly, I don’t know. It all gives an appearance of profundity, but it’s lacking in real substance.
This is a film entirely about meaningless erotic passion, yet there is never a glimpse of nudity. The sexual encounters are intensely implied through subtle details like a clenched fist around bed sheets, humping out of focus figures, and glimpses of body positioning through mirrors. The writer-director, Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio), is consciously and reflexively making a film that on the surface seems like softcore porn built on the fantasy of one of the protagonists, but it is actually exploring the emptiness of the male (and female) gaze.
Strickland wants to show the spectator that their willingness to see the full monty is as empty as the twisted fantasy that the characters are engaged in. Theoretically, this is an intriguing idea that Ernst Lubitsch would drool over, but practically, the couple in the story never develop past being something to be looked at or laughed at (there is a streak of dark comedy that breaks through in some of the odder moments, including a urination fetish, that will have you cringing if you’re not already giggling.).
The plot (or lack thereof) is weird but distinct. The characters, however, couldn’t be flatter or more one-dimensional. This may be the point – to make a hollow film about a hollow act- but it hardly makes for a satisfying film experience.
Evelyn is a well-dressed maid for a considerably wealthy scientist, Cynthia, who studies butterflies. At first, Cynthia seems ruthless towards Evelyn as she refuses to allow her to sit down when she enters the home. Moreover, Evelyn spends her time cleaning all day despite the extravagant interiors seeming already spotless. Yet, Cynthia finds little flaws in her work and concludes that she needs to be “punished,” which really means to engage in acts of bondage and sadomasochism. As the events repeat with varying nuances and changes in perspective, it becomes evident that the pair are lovers and that many of the scenarios between them are scripted to satisfy Evelyn’s fetishistic desires. Neither woman seems to enjoy the sex. Cynthia does the wacko acts out of a sense of obligation, but nothing is extreme enough to please Evelyn.
These two women seem to inhabit a timeless world inside a condensed space of an elaborately decorated home in a secluded European town. When the couple leave the grounds of the house, the only other setting they go to is a convention centre with a Victorian look where female intellectuals lecture on different species of butterflies. Strickland has made a closed world that is deliberately opaque and frustrating to pin down to a specific time or place. Similarly, the two women have no backstory despite their evident past trauma.
The storytelling that circles around the same encounters with slight variations attempts to give us a glimpse into their humanity through subtle visual storytelling and not expository dialogue. Tears, a nightgown instead of lingerie, a slight hesitation in speech: these nuances between nearly identical scenes hint at a deep hurt that runs through the protagonists without digging into the nitty gritty of their psyche, which is essential to showing the contrast between the hollowness of the women’s sexual fantasy and the profound suffering that is motivating their sex lives. The issue is that Strickland doesn’t find poignancy in the stiff, sexualized objects that are the characters even after we understand the subtext of their relationship.
This is mostly because the film’s scope is restricting and narrow. Strickland refuses to universalize the women’s psychological bondage or dig deep enough into their hurts to make us care about such an absurd, over-the-top relationship. How many people do you know that are engaged in lesbian relationships driven by masochism? It wouldn’t be so disappointing if the film didn’t hint at profundity through reoccurring visual motifs like a hand carved black box with a gold key-hole, or intensely surreal visuals of flocks of butterflies. Without any richer insights into either the characters’ relationship or the diagetic world, though, these cool images end up being nothing more than pretensions.
In interviews, the director insists that his intention was to depict the “hows” of Evelyn and Cynthia’s relationship not the “whys.” “Hows” by themselves can work for stylistic endeavours, but the “whys” are what derive pathos. Strickland shows us this erotic relationship through meticulous chiaroscuro lighting and visually arresting cinematography, but he never makes us care about any of it.
There is something intensely aggravating about something that promises to payoff but only reveals itself to be a decadent fantasy. By the end, you’ll be just as mad at The Duke of Burgundy as a person that gives you an empty present.
The Duke of Burgundy is a film that's all style with hints of substance, and it never materializes into anything more than visionary gimmicks.