The Duke of Burgundy (2014) – A baroque S&M dreamworld…

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Like his characters in The Duke of Burgundy, writer-director Peter Strickland is a man with very specific tastes. Inspired by European exploitation flicks of the 60s and 70s, Strickland uses sleazy genre tropes as a jumping off point, creating his own peculiar world of heightened reality. Unlike Tarantino, who mashes all his influences together into a primary-coloured pop culture collage, Strickland’s vision is exactingly beautiful, highly strung, and very, very niche.

The film opens with a waif-like young woman, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) sitting by a stream in the woods. She appears to be waiting for someone or something. She then cycles to her place of work, the home of stern entomologist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who scolds her for being late. Evelyn is Cynthia’s housemaid, performing menial tasks while Cynthia works on butterfly-related matters. Evelyn isn’t great at her job, and often messes up. When she does, Cynthia punishes her in a sexually degrading way.

After this tight, titillating set up, The Duke of Burgundy changes perspective and it becomes clear that the roles of Evelyn and Cynthia aren’t quite as straightforward as initially presented. They  are lovers, embroiled in a sub-dom relationship which is on the wane. While Evelyn likes to play the submissive, she is the driving force behind the scenario, carefully scripting situations and dialogue for the pair to enact, and is very particular about what her older partner should wear.

It isn’t clear how long the couple have been together, or how often they have performed Evelyn’s fantasy, but it is clear that Cynthia’s enthusiasm for the game is wearing thin. As an attractive woman in middle age, she seems uncomfortable trussed up in the fetishistic gear Evelyn wants her to wear. She would clearly be more comfortable cuddling up in pyjamas together with a mug of cocoa instead of sitting on Evelyn’s face for hours wearing stockings and a corset.

Evelyn, perhaps twenty years younger, has noticed Cynthia’s lack of commitment and wants to spice things up. Cynthia is worried that Evelyn might trade her in for a younger, racier model.

Story-wise, that’s pretty much it. As with Strickland’s previous film, Berberian Sound Studio, the atmosphere is the plot. In the stifling confines of this kinky relationship The Duke of Burgundy does for touch what Perfume: The Story of a Murderer did for smell. 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 leaves over cobbles. It plays on the viewer’s memory of what things feel like – leather, lace, linen, satin, silk, skin.

We also spend a lot of time looking at display cases of butterflies. Thankfully, Strickland refuses any cheap metaphors, and the insects seem solely to add another layer of esoteric detail to the intoxicating mix.

The film is set in an alternative reality where there are no men, and all the women in the overgrown village are into butterflies and S&M. Strickland depicts the lover’s fantasies tastefully and respectfully, seeking to enrich rather than cheapen, and makes no judgement on the more outré activities of their ritual. There are some droll moments of humour, especially in a scene where the local S&M furniture specialist pops in to measure Evelyn for a specialised bed with a secret compartment for the submissive partner to sleep in.

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Unlike the flaccid and comically asexual Fifty Shades of Grey, this feels like a real relationship between two real human beings. Despite the swooning dream world Strickland creates and the maddeningly elusive timeline, The Duke of Burgundy is sincere and emotionally honest.

Ultimately, everyone in a relationship plays a role, and those roles can change gradually over time. Usually the relationships that last are the ones that can adapt to the change. Like Cynthia, we get the sense that we are witnessing the last throes of a relationship which isn’t able to adapt, particularly to the older partner’s needs.

Knudsen is terrific as Cynthia. It is an open, guileless performance, a gorgeous middle-aged woman conscious of the effects of time on her body. She is tender and loving, but wracked with sekf-doubt, as if terrified about what her autumn years will hold if she loses Evelyn’s heart. By contrast, D’Anna is striking to look at, but we get no clues about why she pursues her fantasy so voraciously.

As with Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy loses its way in the third act. Just when the relationship drama should be biting, the narrative becomes even more fractured and hallucinatory.

The Duke of Burgundy definitely won’t be everyone’s mouthful of piss, but those who buy into its obtuse charms will be sure to revisit it again and again, looking for clues in the elliptical narrative, or just to get off on the decadent vibe one again.

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 18/04/2015, in cinema, Drama, Entertainment, Fantasy, Film, Movies, Psychological, Reviews, Romance and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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