The title of this film may lead viewers to believe that the plot involves a complex story involving a figure of royalty. It does not. The Duke of Burgundy is in reality a species of butterfly (bearing the Latin name Hamearis Lucina) found in the U.K. Seen during the springtime, the female is particularly elusive, preferring to fly close to the ground and look for adequate locations to lay their eggs. The Duke of Burgundy is also an endangered species, its numbers in rapid decline particularly in the last few decades.
When one understands the truth about the title, the plot becomes a revelation. There are no men in the film, only women that appear to be dedicated lepidopterists, living in an ambiguous time period since the film provides no historic references, no vehicles are seen or specific artifacts with the exception of a typewriter, which may well be part of a very structured setting. The beginning of the film is remnant of 1970’s British cinema, with the credits at the beginning and an emphasis on landscape cinematography. The interior of the massive English country house where the two protagonists live is dark and filled with shadows, only occasionally the sun pushing its way past the heavy curtains.
Two women, Cynthia and Evelyn are involved in a peculiar sadomasochist relationship. But everything is not as it seems, the film’s initial scene fooling the audience into thinking that they are seeing Evelyn, a helpless country maid abused by Cynthia, a cruel, dominating, hair-in-chignon woman who forces the younger woman to perform humiliating chores and in fact seems to hurt Evelyn physically. Soon enough, it is evidenced that this is a role playing game, with Cynthia as the cruel dominatrix and Evelyn, the feeble and helpless submissive, but the lines become blurred as to dominates who. It is Evelyn who buys the leather corsets and boots that Cynthia wears and reportedly, does not like. Evelyn enjoys being humiliated, but Cynthia becomes more and more resistant to perform acts of humiliation, expressing instead her preference for a more “normal” relationship. It is Evelyn too, that dictates to Cynthia how she is to be locked in a trunk, tied up, used as a human toilet, or methodically tortured. Cynthia even has cards to read from to remember her dialogue correctly. Evelyn uses a safe word, “Pinastri”, a subcategory for insects, including flies and moths, to let Cynthia know when she wants to be released or let out. When Evelyn betrays Cynthia by submitting to polish another woman’s boots (a task that is part of their role-play), Cynthia at last willingly assumes the role of the Master and punishes Evelyn by not giving her what she desires the most: cruelty. This does not last, and things seem to fall into an ambiguous limbo. As the butterfly bearing its name, Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship soars during the spring and comes into a standstill as winter approaches, preparing itself perhaps for a sort of hibernation. What is clear is that Evelyn manipulates Cynthia into doing what she wants, when she wants it, in real life time leaving no doubt as to who is really in command. As the scenes in the film seem to play out their game over and over, the audience is left to wonder weather the relationship will survive the trials of psychological exhaustion and frustrating expectations. A film heavily drenched in erotica, “The Duke of Burgundy” feels like walking in a dream ,a magnificent tale of love, desire, and pain.
“The Duke of Burgundy” was screened at The Toronto International Film Festival, The London Film Festival and The Rotterdam Film Festival, and won The Jury Prize at the 2014 Philadelphia Film Festival.