The Servant or the Master: A Film About Compromise

in 52nd Vienna International Film Festival

by Nil Kural

The Duke of Burgundy opens in a beautiful European mansion where the owner, a scientist who studies butterflies, seems very cruel, scrutinizing the details of the maid’s work and punishing her for not doing her job properly. We think, are we in the area of Joseph Losey’s The Servant, watching a film on power, master and servant? The answer is yes and no. The Duke of Burgundy by English director Peter Strickland is in fact an S&M movie about the relationship between two women, set in a world without men. In the simplest way it is a love story. Yes, it has a theme of power and we see the power balance changing all the time between the two lovers.

Strickland was one of the guests of the Viennale where he presented two films: The Duke of Burgundy, one of the favorite films of the selection, and his documentary on Björk called Björk: Biophilia Live.

Peter Strickland, one of the most welcome directors not just at the Viennale but on the international cinema scene played around with genres in his previous work, Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and Katalin Varga (2009). This time he revisits 1970s erotic films like the Emmanuelle series and comes up with The Duke of Burgundy.  The two sides of this love story are Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). At the beginning, the power balance of the relationship seems to be on Cynthia’s side, as she tortures and punishes Evelyn who acts as the poor maid of the house. But it turns around and audience realizes that Cynthia is the one obeying and trying to satisfy Evelyn. As the film continues, this balance changes around and at the end The Duke of Burgundy is a film that asks “How can compromise be reached between two lovers who have different intimate needs?” in Strickland’s own words.

Peter Strickland makes this film work as an affecting love story about power by giving his film a fairytale look. The timeless feel of the film and the location being unclear, other than that it’s somewhere in Europe, are factors that give the film its unique atmosphere. Another detail is that the film’s world is devoid of men. Strickland states that this was not his intention in the beginning but in the end the choice gives strength to the dreamy atmosphere and also adds another meaning: in the power struggle in an intimate relationship in a world of women, a compromise is found more easily and without things becoming destructive. Would this be the case in a world of men? The answer is probably not.

Cynthia’s work on butterflies is a strong theme in the film and the obvious sexual reading could seem a delicate nod to Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, a collector of butterflies and a master of literature on sexuality and intimate relations. Strickland puts bug sounds in the sound design of the film in great harmony with the images.

Peter Strickland says that he looks in the trash can of cinema to get inspiration for his films, as he did in his acclaimed Berberian Sound Studio with B-type horror films of the 1970s. His starting point in The Duke of Burgundy is 1970s erotic films and the result is a graceful film on power and compromise in intimate relations and the film lingers for a long time in viewers’ minds with the help of its strong atmosphere. After seeing his third feature, we could easily say that Strickland turns what he finds in trash cans into jewels for audiences.

Edited by Alison Frank