Formed in 2011, Cats Eyes in a collaboration between Faris Badwan (best know as the front man for The Horrors) and Italian-Canadian soprano Rachel Zeffira.
Having worked together throughout 2011 on an EP and their self-titled debut, the duo were keen to work on a soundtrack. It was around this time that director Strickland approached them asking them to score his critically acclaimed Duke of Burgundy. The sonic pairing lent the film a wistful dreamy nostalgic atmosphere, as if filmed in the late 1960s.
Everything about this film is not at first what it seems, and that is exactly what makes it so compelling. The film’s title is the first red herring. There is no Duke; no specific sense of place or time. The Duke of Burgundy is in fact a butterfly, specifically a butterfly of British origin, but don’t let that mislead you, as that has only partial relevance here.
The titles, technology, modes of transport and soundtrack are all out of time and place. All artifice is employed by Strickland to create a world populated only by women. In a seemingly endless bucolic hazy summer which can only ever exist in memory, we are introduced to lead figure Evelyn.
Evelyn first appears to be a student studying insects, supporting herself as a maid for an older rich employer. Cynthia is haughty, preoccupied, disinterested and dismissive of Evelyn’s efforts. We are led to believe she is a terrible employer, to the point of punishing Evelyn for her lack of skill.
Every time Evelyn arrives at Cynthia’s house she always gets something wrong, resulting in an unseen punishment. It’s almost as if she’s doing it deliberately. She is.
“The underlying theme of the Duke of Burgundy is the story of all relationships, the pressure of having to live up to anothers perception”
Evelyn and Cynthia are in fact a couple acting out a sadomasochistic fantasy. They act it out repeatedly until the very act itself crushes any affection.
Both Lepidopterists Evelyn and Cynthia attend daily lectures at a nameless institute. It appears that everyone in the town attends these lectures. Cynthia appears to be a more senior lecturer, whilst it’s never made clear in what capacity Evelyn operates within.
This sadomasochistic lesbian relationship leads the narrative, however the sex and sexuality of the characters is not the focus of the film. The underlying theme of the Duke of Burgundy is the story of all relationships, the pressure of having to live up to anothers perception, and conversely a need for our loved ones to conform to our own expectations.
The supposedly submissive Evelyn (Chiara d’Anna), is revealed to be the one who ultimately dominates her older lover, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsens).
“It is a performance in which, the two characters have willingly entered into and eventually become trapped by”
Once we become aware of the shifting power balance the different facets of Cynthia’s personality and truth of the relationship unfold. Far from the dominant fantasy figure Cynthia is in fact a woman who likes a hug in her baggy pajamas; infuriating her submissive lover.
Using the films of Jess Franco as a starting point Strickland wanted to see how the, “disreputable genre of the ‘70s erotic cinema could be resuscitated”. In order to avoid exactly copying the source material none of the usual nudity and any of the clichés normally associated with sadomasochism are shown. The much discussed urination scene is hinted at from the multiple glasses of water Cynthia consumes. But it is never explicitly depicted.
Strickland has said that it is an exploration of performance. It is a performance in which, the two characters have willingly entered into and eventually become trapped by. By the end of the film the stifling repetition and Evelyn’s repeated demands grind Cynthia down to breaking point, we see her stutter and stumble through Evelyn’s precise script, failing to hold back tears of humiliation and frustration as Evelyn looks on dispassionately.
This beautiful and considered film meanders along in what Strickland refers to as a “dreamy post-orgasmic flow”; a hazy dissection of the nature of all relationships, delivered as a fantasy interrupted by the pragmatic force of reality.