The Duke of Burgundy is an intriguing and obtuse film which, from its title, sounds as if it should be some sort of historical costume drama but it’s actually a kind of lesbian 50 Shades of Grey.
The slender plot examines the strange sado-masochistic relationship between two women, the young sexually rapacious and obsessive Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) and her older sexual partner Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen who plays Birgitte Nyborg in Danish political drama Borgen). They engage in a bizarre role-playing game in which Cynthia is the harsh mistress and Evelyn her servant who is forced to wash her clothes and clean her house. When Evelyn is deemed not to have done a good job she is subjected to unusual and unsanitary punishments. Soon, however, Cynthia looks for something beyond these bizarre games which infuriates the unusual and possibly unstable Evelyn.
Within this limited framework director Peter Strickland examines the pressures, anxieties, unusual compromises and resentments that underscore relationships and the way these can often become destructive. Through his depiction of the two women’s roles as entomologists specialising in the study of butterflies he also touches on an intriguing subtext about rebirth and renewal. It is important to note that despite this film’s emphasis on sexual role play this is not pornography and there’s nothing X-rated on display.
Strickland adds an experimental touch with odd dream sequences that draw on David Lynch’s visual style and atmospherics. Interestingly, The Duke of Burgundy also often has a look and editing style reminiscent of European art-house films from the late 60’s. These elements give the film an otherworldly quality which is enhanced by the fact that despite being set in the regular world there are no male characters in this film. Strickland enhances the film’s unusual atmosphere with excellent use of moody songs and an orchestral score from duo Cat’s Eyes.
This film will not be to everyone’s liking. As the plot explores the cyclic nature of their sex games it is deliberately repetitive and some audiences may find this dull. Also, if feels as if Strickland has taken a kernel of an idea that might have worked superbly in a short film and stretched it to feature length. D’Anna and Knudsen are terrific as these odd characters, however and seem like a real couple with all the affection and antagonism.
This film is very much an acquired taste and while it will be a rapturous experience for some audiences it will leave others cold.
Nick’s rating: ***.
Director(s): Peter Strickland.
Release date: 10th September 2015.
Running time: 104 mins.
Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM. Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. http://subcultureentertainment.com/2014/02/the-good-the-bad-the-ugly-film-show
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