The Duke of Burgundy
Written and directed by Peter Strickland. Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, Fatma Mohamed, Monica Swinn, Eugenia Caruso.
Spellbinding, sensuous, erotically charged: Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy is both a loving ode to the kind of late 60s/early 70s sexploitation helmed by Jess Franco and Radley Metzger, and something of greater design that transcends its genre. It’s both an engaging piece of entertainment and a striking work of art.
And while the film features very little onscreen nudity or sex, it teaches Fifty Shades of Grey a thing or two about onscreen eroticism and the effects of the games people play: not only is the sexual tension between the leads here palpable, but so is the emotional undercurrent that both drives – and is driven by – their bedroom games.
Those two leads are Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen (best known, perhaps, for her role on Danish TV’s Borgen) and Italian Chiara D’Anna, who last appeared in director Strickland’s previous film, Berberian Sound Studio.
They star in The Duke of Burgundy as a pair of lesbian lovers engaged in a complex game of roleplay that encompasses the entire film. Burgundy’s highly-charged scenes of eroticism match that salient description, but the underlying themes beautifully, and tastefully, explore the emotional undercurrent of the central relationship.
After a wonderfully atmospheric credit sequence that evokes European exploitation films from the 60s-70s, we quickly transition into the action of the film. D’Anna is Evelyn, a house servant who shows up by bicycle to the home of the strict mistress Cynthia (Babett Knudsen).
There, Cynthia continually berates the poor girl, who isn’t doing the housework to her exact specifications. But we sense that something isn’t quite right; one of the film’s most striking early scenes is a shot in which Cynthia is reading and Evelyn is brushing the floor, but Cynthia isn’t really reading nor is Evelyn really brushing the floor.
The abuse soon turns from verbal into physical – an unwashed pair of panties really sets Cynthia off – and culminates in a scene that takes place behind closed doors, though the soundtrack leaves nothing to our imagination. It’s an incredible, and unforgettable, sequence – and one that is recalled every time we see Cynthia drink another glass of water.
But wait! Things aren’t really as they seem (or are they…?) and we learn new information that paints an entirely different picture of this relationship. The above sequences are repeated numerous times throughout the movie, and as we learn more about these characters, our interpretation of virtually the same scenes changes considerably.
The Duke of Burgundy might take place in the 1970s, it might take place on some sort of commune not dissimilar to The Wicker Man, or it might take place on an alien planet altogether, but here are some of the basics of the setting: there are no men, or mention of men, throughout the entire film, there are no mechanical or electrical devices used (characters ride bicycles on streets, use gas lamps at home), and butterflies feature heavily in the social lives of these women.
The only other role of note in the film belongs to Fatma Mohamed (also seen in the director’s previous film), as a carpenter who makes devices of a sexual nature. There is heartbreak when a prison-like chamber inside a bed cannot be made in time for a birthday, but renewed interest upon the mention of a “human toilet” device.
The film’s incredible soundtrack features an evocative original score by Cat’s Eyes that perfectly captures the retro sexploitation vibe. There are also a number of field recording of butterflies throughout the film, carefully noted in the end credits.
I loved director Strickland’s previous film, Berberian Sound Studio, an homage to 1970s Italian giallo films that starred Toby Jones as a sound engineer slowly losing his wits. Still, it was a dense and complex experience that frustrated some with its ambiguous nature. The Duke of Burgundy, meanwhile, is much more approachable.
Casual viewers might be put off by all the metaphysical and allegorical elements of the film – all the stuff with the butterflies, which is mostly left open to audience interpretation – but the relationship drama between the two leads works on very traditional levels. Refined, elegant, and lovingly crafted, The Duke of Burgundy is Strickland’s finest, and most accessible, film to date.