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And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, Then how should I begin?

– T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915)

The association between butterflies and the feminine in the western narrative have been canonised in Puccini’s verismo opera Madama Butterfly, itself an allegory for western imperialism. In Act 1 of the opera, the character of Cio-Cio San (a.k.a Butterfly) sings to Pinkerton, “Dicon ch’oltre mare se cade in man dell’uom / ogni farfarla da uno spillo è trafitta / ed in tavola infitta!” (“They say across the sea, if it falls into the hand of man, each butterfly from a needle is pierced and on (a) board fixed!“). The proverbial subjugation of the butterfly (woman) by the man inevitably spells doom, foreshadowing what is to come if Butterfly allows herself to be captured by a colonial lepidopterist.

It is a fatal end, but one which witnesses a curious subversion in Peter Strickland’s “The Duke of Burgundy“. For one, the film is entirely devoid of men. Despite being directed by a man, it is a conscious and magnificent choice to only feature women in the film, deliberately treating women as the “default” for character and story-telling (conversely, count how many films which feature entirely male casts, and yet no one blinks an eye). Furthermore, the relationships between the woman feel entirely non-exploitative, in contrary to the ever-present male gaze of cinema that focuses on women. Love scenes and erotic moments are not made to feel voyeuristic or judgemental, but rather a natural extension of these women’s lives. There is certainly an element of voyeurism in Cynthia (Chiara D’Anna) and Evelyn’s (Sidse Babett Knudsen) relationship, but which is entirely within the safe confines of a consensual space.

As Strickland expertly conjured in Berberian Sound Studio, the overwhelming atmosphere is further developed. The colours and setting are directly evocative of 1970s Italian giallo, complimented by Cat Eyes’ extraordinarily techno-ambient Twin Peaks’-esque score, rich autumnal colour palette and art direction, and classic, timeless clothing (lingerie even gets a special mention in the opening credits). Influences of Jess Franco and Fassbinder are also evident here, in particular the lavish set design and close-ups. The result is an intensely otherwordly, elegantly stylized, and hermetically self-contained universe- I reiterate the sense of timelessness and lack of clarity about location; it seems suspended in another dimension altogether, to which the audience is only witness for a short time. There is a dim reverie about the whole film, as though one were watching through the gossamer threads of a silk veil, hazy and and sensual at once.

The occasional idiosyncrasy between the sumptuous and erotica-fuelled atmosphere and awkward moments as these two women navigate the evolving boundaries of their relationship might have been played falsely, but Strickland ensures that they retain humour and warmth. The involved fantasy of the dominant-submissive relationship is prevented from being too hard-boiled by the occasional and very human touches of mundanity (snoring, thinking up new role-playing dialogue that is still thrilling). In short, how best to please one’s partner and retain favour – it affects all relationships, even sadomasochistic ones, apparently.

And the butterflies – or rather, moths, as are truly featured in the film. Cynthia is a lepidopterist, and nearly all the women in the film devote their lives to the study of the winged creatures. Wing and insect motifs are omnipresent in the film, filled with illustrations and display cases, even seeping into the erotically-charged dialogue (“I can read about cave crickets while you are helpless underneath me“.)

The frenetic, overwhelming wing-beating of moths and butterflies is of particular fascination to Strickland, and he emulates their nearly suffocating presence in multiple points throughout the film, both by light and sound. Images are often kaleidoscopically fragmented, shattered as though like glass, bursting into a panoply of vivid colour imprinted on a butterfly’s wings. It all seems to lead to an epic crescendo near the end of the film, a veritable orchestral ascension of sound and controlled chaos, the culmination of the beating of moths’ wings, insistent and staggering in its zenith. It evokes a similar moment in Berberian Sound Studio which shared an equal, if not greater, preoccupation with intangible and overwhelming soundscapes, and which similarly steps outside the story to serve as a solely unreal schism in narrative logic. It is an awesome and impalpable moment that emphasises the tantalising surreality of the film and its commanding eccentricity of genre and plot.

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