A unique love story expressed strangely but sincerely.
The Duke of Burgundy
This review delves into some of the film’s reveals in the first act. While this review only contains very mild spoilers, those wanting to go in blind might want to hold off reading until after they see The Duke of Burgundy.
Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy is a deceptive little love story. The opening credits, with its warping effects, filters and dreamlike mood, immediately shows how much Strickland owes his film’s style to sleazy Euro erotic films from the ’70s (think Jess Franco). But Strickland knows what attracts people to that kind of low-grade cinema, similar to the giallo films that inspired Berberian Sound Studio, isn’t necessarily the content or quality. It’s the specific, singular mood these sorts of films create, the off-kilter atmosphere that makes people so fascinated with trying to re-create the same thing. The Duke of Burgundy takes that distinctive form, the hazy, dreamlike reverie one associates with old Euro erotica, and uses it to tell an achingly beautiful love story.
At the start of the film, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) comes to the large estate of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) to do her daily chores as a maid. Cynthia cruelly dominates Evelyn throughout the day, insulting her work and ultimately punishing her for forgetting to wash a pair of panties (what that punishment is exactly I’ll leave as a surprise). It’s at this point, right after the extremity of Evelyn’s punishment, that Strickland starts pulling back the curtain. Cynthia and Evelyn are, in fact, lovers, and the maid routine is a ritual the two act out almost every day. Suddenly the roles in the relationship switch; Evelyn turns out to be the one in control, giving Cynthia explicit instructions on how to behave during their role play. It’s the first of many surprising, inventive subversions of expectations throughout.
From here, The Duke of Burgundy uses the extreme conditions of Cynthia & Evelyn’s relationship to delve into universal issues anyone with a partner goes through, namely the issue of compromise. Cynthia clearly doesn’t enjoy Evelyn’s routine, but she continues to participate because of how much it pleases her lover. Take away the BDSM qualities, and what Cynthia feels is one of the biggest hurdles with any relationship. It’s about doing something you don’t like to please the one you love, and Strickland beautifully conveys that core theme with a level of precision cutting straight through the gorgeous style.
Don’t take that as a knock on The Duke of Burgundy’s style, though. In Strickland’s previous film Berberian Sound Studio, he showed how much his style puts an emphasis on sensations and emotions. It’s easy to get into a character’s headspace because every frame dedicates itself to evoking their strongest feelings. It’s the same thing here, with each image and sound seemingly designed to emphasize the intensity of Cynthia & Evelyn’s love. Strickland repeatedly delves into Evelyn’s perspective at the height of her lust for Cynthia, and it’s a feeling so strong it threatens to break the film; abstract images inspired by the avant-garde take over (one sequence, obviously inspired by Stan Brakhage, might be one of the best things put on screen all year), and the effect is stunning. Strickland appears to have finally found the perfect mix of form and content, and in doing so has made his best film to date.
It’s also a very funny film. Strickland offsets the more intense moments with plenty of opportunities to poke fun at his own creation. A lot of the humour comes from breaking down the fantastical qualities, putting an emphasis on the logistics of Evelyn’s wants. None of the comedic elements feel out of place either, mainly because the characters always take things seriously (no matter what way you cut it, lines like “So had I ordered a human toilet, none of this would have happened?” delivered earnestly is just plain funny). And that’s key to The Duke of Burgundy’s success. Strickland never mocks or judges Cynthia & Evelyn. He presents a unique, fairy tale-like setting, one that feels timeless, and presents something relatable through it. It’s rendering the ordinary into something extraordinary, and watching Strickland’s sublime interpretation is nothing short of exhilarating.
The Duke of Burgundy is in on VOD and theatres including Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in West LA and IFC Center in New York now.