Every frame of Peter Strickland’s third feature is unbelievably beautiful – even when you can hear a woman urinating into another’s mouth (albeit behind a blue smoked glass door). Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) is Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen)’s maid and is subject to her icy, punitive will – only, as becomes evident very quickly, Evelyn isn’t actually her maid, she’s Cynthia’s lover and it is Evelyn that plans how she herself will be ‘punished’ for failing to wash the smalls properly. A disorientating exploration of the politics of control and love, The Duke of Burgundy is preposterous, fantastical, unsettling and bizarre, but it is also fascinating, absorbing, touching and visually stunning.
The Duke of Burgundy occupies a world without men, television or internet – lesbianism, lepidopterology and BDSM are ordinary activities with which to occupy oneself. The time period is unspecified, though the styling of the film heavily suggests an early ‘70s gothic horror. There are hints of Belle de Jour, Persona, Valerie & Her Week of Wonders, The Collector, Mothlight, Hammer House of Horror, and the Italian gothic horrors as referenced by Strickland’s previous feature proper, Berberian Sound Studio (let’s settle this once and for all, the film within the film in BSS - The Equestrian Vortex - is clearly not a giallo, it’s a gothic horror that happens to be Italian and made in the ‘70s).The attention to detail in the film is as fetishistic as its subject matter, the palette all glimmering blues, greens and yellows.
The BDSM theme serves to explore certain notions about the dynamics and demands of a long-term relationship, and matters of control therein. The important delineation between the lovers’ performances and real life is evidenced clearly throughout. Evelyn exerts control by asking Cynthia to perform with her through absurd and humiliating scenarios which Cynthia sometimes struggles (physically and emotionally) to enact upon her ‘submissive’ partner, yet does because she loves her; Cynthia puts pins in butterflies and conducts talks (both acts of control) – when Cynthia instigates an aberration from Evelyn’s meticulously planned ‘master and slave’ acts, the result is genuinely cruel. Furthermore, when Cynthia is ‘forcing’ Evelyn to rub her back as ‘punishment’, Evelyn is aroused; when Cynthia needs a back rub due to injury, Evelyn is merely bored.
The Duke of Burgundy isn’t plot-heavy, but it doesn’t need to be. There are long, voyeuristic shots in soft focus of stockings, basques, leather boots and cunnilingus, panning rows of pinned entomological specimens, the Strickland traits of dream sequences and slow zooms out, characteristic open skies and fields contrasted with claustrophobic slabs of noise (provided by Nurse With Wound and Flying Saucer Attack in this case), repeated dialogue and disjointed conversations. (Incidentally, the two instances of the aforementioned acts aside, all of this is set against Cat’s Eyes gauzy soundtrack, a significant contributor to the overall oneiric tone. As an act they bear a passing sonic resemblance to Broadcast (who provided the soundtrack to BSS and whose former member Roj also provided music for Strickland’s feature debut Katalin Varga), albeit less electronic, and for this film they too seem to have an affinity with Valerie & Her Week of Wonders – regardless of influence, Cat’s Eyes should be very proud of their work here.)
If any of that sounds gloomy, heavy or tawdry, it really isn’t; no, for all this film is heavily eroticised throughout and certainly has its dark passages, there is a mysterious and airy atmosphere, little actual nudity, and plenty of humour (the latter being necessary as a counterpoint to the prevailing themes in order to ensure film’s success). Furthermore, as a film written and directed by a straight man that admits the film began life as a tribute of sorts to Jess Franco (a male director that sadly became a purveyor of what was essentially soft pornography by the end of his career), The Duke of Burgundy does not feel exploitative in the least. There’s no getting away from it, this really is a love story; the extraordinary framework and the riveting erotic charge of the film merely enhance the thematic core of the film – two people trying to make each other happy.
The “arthouse 50 Shades” this is not, so please do take the opportunity to strike anyone who tries to suggest otherwise. With The Duke of Burgundy, Strickland has created an impressive, nuanced, entrancing masterpiece, a purely cinematic world that you can lose yourself in for a couple of hours and beyond (even if you are a man).
‘The Duke of Burgundy’ is on release at selected cinemas now and on a variety of streaming services, including Curzon Home Cinema, Film 4 and Artificial Eye’s YouTube channel.
Andrew R. Hill