It isn’t a coincidence that many movies that deal with very troubling psychological themes have characters who collect and/or study moths. There is the surface-level creepiness of moths, the fear that they instill in us with their unpredictable flight patterns and ugly thick hairy abdomens and menacing wing decorations. They are in all accounts the sociopathic, obsessive, and much maligned cousin to the majestic, dreamlike butterfly. They help make accessible the darkness in mood and theme of pictures dealing with mental tugs-of-war. But the most obvious connections the moth motif delivers is the obsession with light. While butterflies are associated with their pollination and dispersal of seeds of flowers, a wholly serviceable and normal natural function of their species, the moth is obsessive, entranced and hypnotized by light. This obsession provides no ecosystem service in this regard, and even further, it can kill the moth, but that trans exists and it is inescapable. It’s beyond the moth’s psyche and physical control.
Similarly, here the characters in Peter Strickland’s wildly inspired and thoroughly surprising film The Duke of Burgundy are encompassed in a sexual and passion-filled existence that borders on the brim of tumultuous self-destruction. Cynthia and Evelyn are in their own world, entranced by all the facets of erotica that exist in the bubbling relationship of two lesbian lovers. To dub The Duke of Burgundy an “erotic film” would be to do a disservice to its cinematic complexity and vision as well as the viewers expectations. The movie has all the essences of erotic cinema but it only leaves them at their base individual elements; sly looks, eyelashes, curves, submissiveness, dominance, body fluids, underwear, skin, locks, chains, ropes, leather, velvet, candles, lips, and heels. The movie is a red velvet cake deconstructed into its raw ingredients with Strickland’s camera and the sexuality comes in notions and gestures, relationship politics and human emotion rather than pure sexual acts to elicit heat in the viewer. Don’t expect Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty here.
Strickland is an interesting filmmaker and this movie by him is by all means the most incredible surprise of a film that I came across all year. It is so inspired, so filled with little moments of pure cinema, the kind you know came from years of Strickland’s self-reflection of his own tastes and his own strengths. You see the extensive play with editing of Stan Brakhage, the sensual surrealism of David Lynch, and lighting and cinematography usually associated with Jane Campion’s movies. It’s a unique blend and Strickland manages it beautifully and his characters, two lesbian lovers role-playing, experimenting, and feeling each other’s vibe to ignite a new fire in their waning and wanting sexual relationship, are manifestations of our own desire to rip away from routine and boring rituals and search feverishly for a new enchantment, a new adventure, a light at the end of the tunnel… a light we flutter towards even if it hurts us. In the end The Duke of Burgundy stirs emotions and mixes inspirations into a captivating blend of surreal erotic ingredients within an emotional romantic thriller.
Oh, and please, add Peter Strickland to the company of Ben Wheatley, a guy I’ve called one of the most rocking filmmakers of this generation (and director of the best horror film of the 21st century so far), and you’ve got British indie-cinema with a bright, bright future.