From the Archives: The Duke of Burgundy

Originally posted 2015 | Review by Luke Bates

“You’re late. Did I say you could sit?”

As the film opens it seems Entomology (the study of insects) professor Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is a grade A bitch as she orders her maid Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) around her home. However director Peter Strickland soon takes us deeper into the complex, intimate and somewhat surreal world of Cynthia’s and Evelyn’s relationship.

The film neither gives an insight into to the beginning of this love relationship or the end but rather drops the viewers somewhere into the middle. The naive Evelyn embraces the lifestyle of the Sub , whether its being locked in a trunk overnight or urinated upon. Cynthia on the other hand enjoys the delectation of being the dominant mistress. However as Evelyn pushes the boundaries of Cynthia’s willingness to dominate further and further it is soon revealed who the true power holder is as the frailties of the women come to the fore. Cynthia desires a deeper more emotional relationship while Evelyn craves to go deeper and deeper into her fantasy world of submission.

While the conceit not surprisingly evokes the expectation of a nudey-rumpy-pumpy film, Strickland expertly crafts a picture devoid of nudity and instead insinuates the intimacy of the relationship through a variety of stylistic cues. Style certainly takes centre stage. The film is besotted with lurid colour schemes and a booming soundtrack. It dazzles the senses, even becoming rather trippy at times but if feels as if it should not be any other way. Both Knudsen and D’Anna offer stunning performances capturing the emotional fragility of the relationships that fits into this stylistic setting.

The women cycle through the cobbled streets of the village and the green luscious fields to Cynthia’s home. It certainly is an ambient atmosphere. Inside Cynthia reads and writes in her study and chugs a ridiculous amount of water while Evelyn cleans, cleans and well, cleans. The creaky wooden floors and blue tiled bathrooms are spotless as she potters around the house awaiting her next instruction. While the central story is all a bit odd. So is the world that it sits in. This is a world populated solely by women, most of which have a yearning for all-things-butterfly. The only times we are ever taken out of Cynthia’s home and the neighboring woodland is to visit the Institute of Entomology.

Strickland must be commended for continuing to blend the worlds of fantasy and reality with such ease. His second outing, the highly acclaimed Berberian Sound Studio pedaled the line between horror, fantasy and reality as it traced the story of a sound engineer working on a supposed film about horses. The Duke of Burgundy in turn gravitates between the fantasy world of sexual submission and the reality of the relationship. Overall Strickland’s third production is a compelling piece yet arguably without the gripping performances and the style it feels the film would be rather lacklustre, as truth be told, not a hell of a lot actually happens. While watching The Duke of Burgundy one is distracted by the style and it is not until the end credits roll that you feel as if something was missing, leaving you to ponder some of the unusual obsessions of Evelyn and not really thinking about the actual relationship or where the story has brought us. Surface certainly takes precedence over depth on this occasion.  

Those hoping for a run of the mill beginning, middle and end dominance/submission story should perhaps stick with 50 Shades of Grey while those with a taste for a tantalising snapshot of a fraught and complex relationship should look no further thank Strickland’s latest.


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