Evelyn (Chiara D’anna) arrives at a beautiful country home on a bicycle and knocks at the door. After a spell the door is opened by Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Evelyn follows her into the house where Cynthia instructs her to clean the study. Evelyn already knows where the cleaning products are. Already Peter Strickland’s The Duke Of Burgundy is playing with assumptions. You might think they are maid and employer. You already suspect this may have happened before. So begins a playful, emotive relationship drama of pleasingly perverse design. Evelyn and Cynthia are lovers. More than that, they have a relationship; one built and seemingly perpetuated by a series of very specific role-plays.
Cynthia initially appears terse, rigid. One initially sways to sympathise with Evelyn, presuming her to be the subordinate and submissive player in this. With fluidity, Strickland peel away layers, reveals more. The two of them share a passion for butterflies and moths; journeying together to a nearby etymology institute for lectures; listening to field recordings; enjoying their own private collection. Strickland’s film plays joyfully on the notion of transformation provoked by these creatures. Quickly it appears that, though she delights in masochistic pleasure, Evelyn is in fact the dominant one in this relationship, selfishly imposing her increasingly intricate fetishes on Cynthia, who acquiesces to behaviour she feels evermore dissatisfied with in order to keep hold of her beloved. Theirs is a relationship of compromise, but has the pendulum swung too far in one direction? The next 100 minutes will tell the tale.
Strickland, confident before, seems now in full ownership of his voice as a filmmaker, and The Duke Of Burgundy is a full-throated creation. As with his previous offering, Berberian Sound Studio, this film pays a huge debt to European cinema of the 60’s and 70’s. Where once we were steeped in nostalgia for the Italian ‘giallo’ horror pictures, here it is the primly held eroticism of the likes of Luis Bunuel. Strickland plays this judiciously, and in D’anna and Knudsen has two remarkable lead actresses who are fully committed to his project. Sensual, erotic, but not gratuitous; this is no trashy skin-flick. It’s far more assured, far sexier than that.
Strickland understands and exploits the eroticism in nuance and suggestion. The taut hammering of keys on a typewriter. The strict definitions of a tape measure. Cynthia’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for water. In these and other gestures and motifs, Strickland builds the aura of anticipation. So effective are his methods that the BBFC have placed upon The Duke Of Burgundy an 18 certificate, though for quite what I’m at a loss to pinpoint. This is a film that seems more explicit than it is, even if at one stage a Lynchian dream sequence unfurls through the gateway of a vagina. The BBFC’s reaction is a credit to the film’s success. It recalls the precise audio/visual slicing and dicing of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (Amer, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears), but with the benefit of patience and depth of character to bolster the aesthetic pleasures.
But what aesthetic pleasures there are! Strickland and his DP Nicholas D. Knowland make this a wonderfully rich journey. Set in a non-specific seemingly continental village, The Duke Of Burgundy takes place on the crest of autumn. As such gold is a key colour that generously dapples most scenes, contrasted with cool blues which speak to the growing ennui felt by Cynthia. The autumnal setting reflects the unwelcome rot that encroaches on the central relationship – one very much built on love – something that manifests physically for Cynthia in recurrent back complaints. As unusual as their displays of affection may seem (though the film wryly jokes that they may in fact be all too commonplace), Strickland uses their strange interplay to discuss universal themes of doubt. The worry that, no matter how much you trust or love someone, you can never be sure you know them 100%. As Evelyn’s tastes grow increasingly demanding, Cynthia can’t help but wonder if she’s really enough for her. And if Cynthia has grown weary of playing her part, might Evelyn look to find a more game partner elsewhere?
Carried by a truly wonderful score by Cat’s Eyes, The Duke Of Burgundy may sound portentous, but in fact it strikes an admirable balance between the melodramatic and the wryly humorous. A visit from a bespoke carpenter of masochistic furniture allows the film a comic apex, while Strickland indulges in some delightfully strange little extras. Witness, for instance, the mannequins dotted in the audience at the seminars Cynthia and Evelyn attend. And who else would go so far as to credit the suppliers of lingerie and perfume in their opening titles? Above all though, what lingers is the sensual preoccupation. One of the film’s most vivid recurring images is of bubbles bursting in the suds as Evelyn washes Cynthia’s under-garments. A maximal study of a minute detail. As in all things with Strickland, the details matter.
Anyone familiar with Strickland’s work, then, will perhaps be ready for the third act, where The Duke Of Burgundy flirts with more esoteric, dreamlike territory, before further exploring the nature of compromise over crescendo. With Berberian Sound Studio I personally found the film slipping through my fingers at that point. Here Strickland seems on a much surer footing, and as such the ending felt just right. Some will undoubtedly come away feeling as though they deserved more. You can’t please everyone.
On a personal note, The Duke Of Burgundy confronted me with my least favourite sensation of all; the sound of a wicker broom sweeping across pavings. It makes my fingers curl and knot. Yet there’s a pleasure in the pain. I can forgive Strickland this caustic moment because his film was so giving in other ways. A bold and curious piece of work which feels at once very modern and as though it’s been waiting in some archive for us all to rediscover. This is one to look out for so you can decide for yourself.