Directed by: Peter Strickland
Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, Fatma Mohamed, Monica Swinn
In a Nutshell:
Released the same month as the dull, almost comically asexual 50 Shades of Grey, The Duke of Burgundy is the real deal: a very affecting story about a kinky relationship with a lavish retro-erotica gloss.
Director Peter Strickland is a very niche guy, and the characters in this movie live in a very niche world – a swooning S&M dreamland where there are no men and all the women who live in the film’s lushly overgrown village are into bondage and collecting butterflies. The Duke of Burgundy is Strickland’s best film to date, a thinking person’s smut with plenty to say about how relationships must adapt over time or risk breaking.
We open with a waif-like young woman, Evelyn (D’Anna) cycling through the countryside to her place of work, the home of a stern lepidopterist Cynthia (Knudsen). Evelyn is Cynthia’s maid, taking care of the housework while Cynthia works on butterfly-related matters. Evelyn clearly isn’t very good at her job and often screws up. Whenever she does, Cynthia punishes her in a sexually degrading way.
After its tight, titillating setup, The Duke of Burgundy switches perspective and it becomes clear that Cynthia and Evelyn’s roles aren’t quite as straightforward as we first thought. They are lovers embroiled in a sub-do relationship that is on the wane. While Evelyn likes to play the submissive, she’s the driving force behind the couple’s relationship, carefully scripting situations and dialogue for the pair to enact. However, Cynthia’s enthusiasm for games seems to be running out…
Knudsen is fantastic as Cynthia. It’s an open, honest performance as a gorgeous middle-aged woman who is becoming conscious of the effects of time on her body and looks. We’ve no idea how long the couple has been performing this act, but it’s clear that Cynthia would be happier cuddling up together with Evelyn in their pyjamas instead of sitting on her face for hours on end wearing corset and stockings. She’s tender, loving and outwardly self-confident, but inwardly wracked with doubt, as if worried what her autumn years will hold for her if she loses Evelyn.
D’Anna is a striking, forceful, petulant presence as Evelyn, although we don’t get much insight into what drives her voracious pursuit for this particular sexual fantasy. While she seems to care for Cynthia, sex seems to be the prime motive for their relationship from her perspective. There are hints that she might trade Cynthia in for a racier model if she can’t get what she wants.
Fatma Mohamed has a small entertaining role as The Carpenter, the community’s purveyor of bespoke S&M furniture, who pops in to measure up Evelyn for a specialised bed with a secret compartment for the submissive partner to sleep in.
Cat’s Eyes ravishing, evocative, mysterious, sensual, dreamy soundtrack won the alternative pop duo the European Film Award for Best Composer. Their music is integral to the film’s atmosphere.
The Duke of Burgundy is easily one of the most beautiful of the past decade. Combined with an acute sound mix, cinematographer Nic Knowland’s lens lingers on tiny details, creating a tactile sensation – the light rasp of fingers running over stockinged legs; soap bubbles popping in a tub of laundry; a stiff broom sweeping dry leaves over cobbles. It plays on the viewer’s physical memory of what things feel like – leather, lace, linen, satin, silk, skin.
Strickland pays homage to European exploitation flicks of the 60s and 70s, but for all his stylistic flourishes and the story’s elusive timeline, The Duke of Burgundy is sincere and emotionally honest. Strickland depicts the lovers’ fantasies tastefully and respectfully, seeking to enrich rather than cheapen. He also makes no judgement about the more outré activities in their ritual.
The Duke of Burgundy won’t be everyone’s mouthful of piss, but those who buy into its obtuse charms will surely revisit, looking for clues in the elliptical narrative, or just to get off on the woozy, decadent vibe once again.
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