‘The Duke of Burgundy’: Lesbians and butterflies

If you’re looking for a costume drama, “The Duke of Burgundy” not one of these. The “Duke” of the title is actually the only member of the genus Hamearis, a butterfly of the family Riodinidae and the movie shows quite a few dead insects between the mildly erotic games between two lesbian lovers.

What do you need to know about these dukes of the air? They have two distinct habitats in the United Kingdom. The sexes are different in appearance and have different behavior patterns. The males are territorial and have aerial dog fights. The females wander looking for food and fun. The males are showier with an orange and brown checkered pattern.

The film is not exactly about butterflies, but about a woman who studies butterflies and moths. Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) lives in a large country home. Her decor includes hundred shadowboxed specimens of inspects, pinned down and carefully organized. She lectures to what sems to be a female-only audience. Cynthia employs a maid, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), but while she doesn’t swear or scream at her, she’s coolly critical. Nothing that Evelyn does quite satisfies her.

Yet we soon learn that it isn’t Cynthia who is the dominant force in this relationship.

Director Peter Strickland builds a lush environment with deeply saturated colors and a tending toward darkness, emphasized by Old World dark woods in the interior. Filmed in Hungary, there’s a sense of haziness about place and location. We aren’t sure where we are and the era is perhaps the 1960s or 1970s but the set of people seem far removed from the tribes of trendiness.

“The Duke of Burgundy” won a Wouter Barendrecht Pioneering Vision Award at the Hamptons International Film Festival.

Strickland’s vision doesn’t take us anywhere and the sexual scenes involve suggestion and lovely lingerie over nudity (not that this would have made it better).

“The Duke of Burgundy” seems to flit aimlessly but it does so with impressive style. “The Duke of Burgundy” screened at the AFI Film Festival and is currently showing at the Nuart Theatre.

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