“…an investigation of a situation, in that it probes the ramifications of the moment, and is concerned with its qualities and its depth, so that you have poetry concerned, in a sense, not with what is occurring but with what it feels like or what it means. A poem, to my mind, creates visible or auditory form for something that is invisible, which is the feeling or the emotion or the metaphysical content of the statement. Now, it may also include action, but its attack is what I would call the vertical attack, and this may be a little bit clearer if you will contrast it to what I would call the horizontal attack, to drama which is concerned with the development, let’s say, within a very small situation from feeling to feeling. ” –Maya Deren, Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film
The world of Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy is entirely populated by women, first and foremost mistress and maid Cynthia and Evelyn, two women locked into a complex psycho-sexual relationship. Theirs is a fantasy world where the only things that are certain are the ones presented to the audience. Rather than grounding their relationship in story, the director has chosen to use what Maya Deren would call a vertical treatment of narrative. In order to explore the psychological tension in Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship, Strickland explores poetic tone, rhythm, and mood.
Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), at first, appears to be the dominant instructing her submissive maid, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), in specific chores. Evelyn faces punishments if she does not complete her tasks to her lover’s satisfaction. As the scenes repeatedly play out, it is revealed that it is Evelyn who leaves Cynthia a play-by-play script on what she must do. Evelyn specifically directs the voice Cynthia must use and the outfits she must wear. This tension and inverted role play is an integral part of the way their relationship is rendered in the film, a complex relationship residing in a women-only environment that appears obsessed with exploring entomology. Through this allegory of the insect world, the two women are both seen as isolated beings pinned to their fates by the power of their love for each other.
Cynthia and Evelyn’s walls are covered in insect morphology, frozen in different stages of development. They attend meetings with fellow female entomologists where the language is alien-like because of its extreme specificity to its subject matter. The women listen to extended plays of different insect mating calls and regard each other’s work with enthusiastic interest. Scattered among the seated women there are mannequins in different states of dress and undress, placed as seat fillers. There’s a dissonance that occurs for the viewer when the insect sounds are played and at the sight of these dolls. The mannequins are a jarring sight, but seem natural in their petrified setting. This frozen-in-time effect can also be seen in the highly ritualized daily lives of Cynthia and Evelyn. Evelyn leaves her bed to bicycle away and back to her home to play-act as Cynthia’s servant. She rakes the leaves on the patio and happily greets the neighbor, an old woman, who derisively stares back. The old woman only appears for a few seconds, but her appearance is the only one that appears judgmental of the women’s lives, as if she was out of place in The Duke of Burgundy's fairy world causing the viewer to question what is reality and what is not. Meanwhile, Cynthia prepares for her day putting on the same wig, the same corset, and stockings while gulping down high volumes of water to prepare her body for Evelyn’s demand of water sports. These scenes continually play out day after day.
This repetition is a key element in the film, as expecting different results through repetition reveals what Freud might call a death wish in the couple’s feelings and state of mind. Furthermore, Cynthia's growing concerns for the increasing demands of her spoiled young lover create ripples in the ecology of the poetics of the film. At one crisis point, a dream sequence manifests where Evelyn walks blindfolded into a cloud of moths and butterflies. The drone and sight of their collective wings create a cocoon around Evelyn, hinting at hope for rebirth for the lovers. The camera lens becomes obliterated by wing after collective wing, eventually converging to the soft crackle of old film in a reel. It is a tribute to Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963), where the director pasted dead insect bodies and plants on film and ran it through a projector in an artistic effort to work through his own depression. Watching that film, the audience hears the sounds of flora spool through a machine like wings batting in the air. Film is an esoteric medium in Mothlight capturing feeling through the material, i.e., dead matter. Strickland employs a similar technique with the viscera of the character’s aural, visual, and emotional world to force the viewer into an exploration of the broken mind states of his characters. They have created a co-dependent world out of their emotions and Strickland navigates their feelings through the composition of their environment. The old house they live in creaks with every footstep as they approach one another. Birds endlessly chirp and soft breezes whistle outside while sounds of soap bubbles and rustling housework play infinitely inside. Outside of the couple’s world, the days change as the sun goes down, but inside the couple’s repeat their day without question.
Maya Deren’s work on the theory of film poetry posits that vertical cinema is imbued with meaning, while narratives of fiction, action, and documentary are presentation-based. Peter Strickland is a filmmaker that works very well within the vertical. In his 2012 film, Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland surrounds the story with texture and sounds to create an ode to the atmosphere of giallo film. In The Duke of Burgundy, Strickland employs Deren’s vertical technique in examining the psychoses of his characters. The film focuses on colorfully lush images, textures painted with organic sounds, and dreamlike settings to infer situations rather than present them. These are the basic semiotics of film poetry; or rather, of film that doesn’t rely on a linear narrative.
Dialogue happens rarely in the film, but it suits to ground the audience while they parse Cynthia and Evelyn’s emotional universe. This vertical and horizontal friction has moments of breaking in The Duke Of Burgundy, but even at the film’s conclusion, Cynthia and Evelyn’s fates are the agency of the audience’s affecting interpretation. It’s disturbing, at times, how the viewer gets drawn in with the familiar words of undying love between the film’s characters, becoming vocal anchors in the fairy tale world of the film. As the credits roll, where insect definitions play as importantly as the film crew details, the audience is left wondering more about how the film made them feel rather than about what the film was trying to say.