Evoking Lynch, Polanski and Buñuel, The Duke of Burgundy is a boldly unique film from an exciting British filmmaker; it’s quite mad, quite funny, and quite brilliant.
Burgundy Is The Warmest Colourby Dave O'Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Reading-born director Peter Strickland’s vintage erotic melodrama is a beguiling oddity; an unusual, ethereal and ultimately brilliant film. Wildly and unashamedly inaccessible, it’s an unlikely companion piece to 2012’s excellent and equally off-kilter and enigmatic Berberian Sound Studio. In spite of the bondage, waterworks and human toilets alluded to, the irony is that there is something altogether pure, almost shy about Strickland’s film. The tender and romantic relationship between Cynthia and Evelyn highlights the feckless and selfish exuberance of youth contrasted with the calm and patient restraint of age. One of the great 18th century romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley, wrote “Lift not the painted veil which those who live, Call Life”. Peeping inquisitively into the desires and obsessions that shape eroticism, Strickland’s celestial film is a nimble glimpse behind the beaded curtains of meticulous fetishism and love.
Evelyn (Chiarra D’Anna) is housekeeper to wealthy amateur lepidopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). As well as stringently performing daily duties such as scrubbing the floor, washing clothes and dusting of Cynthia’s manor house, Evelyn is in-turn punished in a variety of fetishistic ways when her work isn’t quite up to scratch. Over time, Evelyn’s intensifying and voracious sexual appetite begins to outweigh Cynthia’s satisfaction, love and patience for her younger lover.
A babbling brook tickles through the floor of a lush forest as Evelyn sits in contemplative silence, followed soon after by a bicycle ride through a sun-bathed meadow. The Duke of Burgundy opens like a schlocky ’70s glamour-porn film. Accompanied by the retro whisperings of British two-piece Cats Eyes, the inclusion of ‘Perfume by’ in the opening titles illustrates a keen sense of self awareness and playful humour. Following this dreamy and luxuriant opening, Duke gets right down to business, with Evelyn knocking on her employer’s manor door. Never have clothes and lingerie been wrung and lathered so sensually – Strickland’s film feels overtly erotic from the first frames to the last. That being said, the eroticism is tastefully coralled so that the intricacies of the BDSM that ensues are teased but rarely thrust upon you.
The latent eroticism throbs under the surface of a film that flagrantly flaunts its tassels in your face without as much as a nipple slip. Apart from Evelyn being locked up in a custom-made coffin at the foot of Cynthia’s bed for instance, we witness sound but not sight of the more niche sexual acts hinted at. This veil is as important to the central characters as it is to the central themes of Strickland’s film. The camera often hovers and weaves through windows, doors and even fabric – which often carefully obscure the sexual acts engaged in behind them. Cynthia and Evelyn’s sexual proclivities are wrapped up around them like a cocoon from the outside world. This is anything but a simplistic take on sadomasochistic behaviour, the roles of sadist and masochist between Cynthia and Evelyn are ever-changing, there’s a fluidity to the power that both of them share at various times.
Strickland’s script humorously subverts expectations at all turns, and also removes gender politics by placing Evelyn and Cynthia in a world inhabited by women. In doing so, Strickland’s central couple aren’t a gay couple, they’re simply a couple in this utopian female dominated world. Outside of the power struggles, a humour and warmth emerges between both characters. The humour is sharp and caustic, often hitting your own personal experiences so firmly on the head that it smarts. One of the highlights of the film involves masturbation and a source material that isn’t quite good enough for one of the characters. Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna are the perfect paradox in their respective roles, with D’Anna, in particular, magnificent as the insatiable, overzealous and cunning Evelyn. Babett Knudsen has an arguably tougher role, playing the stoic and professional older lover in Cynthia, and does so with an affecting and relatable ease.
Once again proving himself a master of mood, The Duke of Burgundy is a rich and glossy smothering of sensory and aural overload. Strickland’s film has a wicked sense of humour infused throughout. The cyclical sexual power-struggle of the central pairing is compelling, but it’s the tender love story as well as the study of commitment that makes for tantalising alchemy. It endearingly illustrates the acceptance that love brings to the selfish, flawed and insecure tendencies in all lovers. Unlike almost any other film released in 2015, Strickland’s film will be unequivocally divisive. Evoking Lynch, Polanski and Buñuel, it’s a boldly unique film from an exciting British filmmaker; quite mad, quite funny, and quite brilliant.
The Duke of Burgundy is released on 20th February in the UK