The Duke of Burgundy – Reviewed by David Turpin
Directed by Peter Strickland
Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, Fatma Mohamed
Peter Strickland’s third feature, The Duke of Burgundy, initially appears to hew closely to the template established by its predecessors, Katalin Varga (2009) and Berberian Sound Studio (2012). Meticulously assembled, intensely cine-literate, and coloured by a fascination for Euro-centric exotica, the film conjures a highly specific aesthetic and holds it unflaggingly for its duration. The Duke of Burgundy, however, boasts more than an infinitely alluring surface, as it ultimately offers depth and even wisdom of a kind one might not initially expect from a film with such rarefied subject matter.
That subject matter, then, is the sadomasochistic love affair between two entymologists, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and the younger Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). Cynthia and Evelyn occupy a ravishingly spooky chateau in an unspecified country that appears to be entirely free of men. Their days are spent studying moths, ordering hair-raising erotic contraptions from a platinum blonde known only as “The Carpenter” (a striking cameo from Strickland veteran Fatma Mohamed), and endlessly re-enacting fussily constructed scenarios that conclude in Evelyn’s “punishment” by Cynthia. Strickland’s interest in looping and repetition finds its perfect match in Cynthia and Evelyn’s highly formalised relationship, but the genius of his film lies in the way it gradually upends our assumptions about this strange ritual.
The cinematic reference points are as exotic as Cynthia and Evelyn’s taste in lingerie, with European erotica of the 1960s and 1970s figuring highly. Jean Rollin (The Nude Vampire, 1970) and Jess Franco (A Virgin Among the Living Dead, 1973) are apparent reference points, as are a pair of less libidinous but equally stylised Czech films, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Jaromil Jires, 1970) and Morgiana (Juraj Herz, 1972). Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) is a clear touchstone, for its intellectually curious yet faintly sardonic treatment of sexual fetishism, while there is even a touch of Elvira Madigan (Bo Widerberg, 1967) in the rapturously beautiful scenes of Cynthia and Evelyn at play in the countryside. Experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage gets a look in, too, with his 1963 piece Mothlight homaged directly in Strickland’s film.
Throughout, Strickland’s curatorship of these references is fascinating, as is the unique world he artfully creates from them. However, what makes his film indelible is its perceptive but still genuinely tender inquiry into the challenges of maintaining any romantic relationship, whether it involves elaborate corsetry or not. A late scene between Cynthia and Evelyn, in which their usual ritual derails in an unexpected way, makes for one of the most affecting depictions of the compromises of love yet put on film, beautifully acted by both Knudsen and D’Anna.
The Duke of Burgundy is something unique – a film that dives headlong into the most outlandish erotica, to arrive at a place of understanding and humanity. Although it’s only February, it will be hard to beat (pun intended) as the film of the year.