Sumptuously claustrophobic, visually ravishing, emotionally wise, wryly subversive, and peculiarly haunting, The Duke of Burgundy is a deeply eccentric filigree of a film; a louche, auteurist hothouse contemporary gothic; and a daring, atmosphere-soaked piece of hypnotherapy. It’s a perversely sincere (and sincerely perverse) labour of love.
Every day, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen, After the Wedding) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), two lesbian entomologists, act out a simple, provocative ritual that ends with Evelyn’s punishment and pleasure. As Cynthia yearns for a more conventional relationship, Evelyn’s obsession with erotica becomes an addiction that pushes the relationship to a breaking point.
Writer-director Peter Strickland follows up his chilly giallo-horror Berberian Sound Studio with something warmer and sweeter – though no less strange – and affirms himself as the preeminent champion of notoriously disreputable genres. Projecting a saucy theme and its minor variations, Strickland generates a discomfiting quality that taps into the intangible elements of sexual attraction by bathing them in ambiguities.
Showcasing that Cynthia and Evelyn are as trapped as the insects they collect and catalogue, Strickland evokes mystery and eroticism, all without nudity, bad dialogue, or the wooden acting that plagues potential Razzie-worthy bombs such as the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey. In so doing, Strickland builds The Duke of Burgundy into a complex, densely layered essay on the privileges of victimhood and the nuances of what it means to suffer for love.
Strickland spins the seminal S&M sendup Secretary with threads from Peter Greenaway’s Angels and Insects, Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, and the Belgian-French thriller Amer. He also inhales the lost aroma of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and charges full-tilt into the objectifying whims of his fantasies to reach the other end of perception. The Duke of Burgundy looks like an agile homage to the arthouse eroticism of Walerian Borowczyk – albeit at his most preposterous – and tips its hats to such masters of costumed erotica as Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, and Tinto Brass, without ever cheapening its love story.
Primarily, The Duke of Burgundy is meticulously composed and extraordinarily beautiful, basking viewers in almost unhealthy visual, aural, and sensual stimulation. Though it’s no slavish homage or mere style exercise, the film is an aesthete’s dream, as refined and delicate as a fritillary’s wing. Cinematographer Nicholas Knowland has crafted a keen pastiche of Euro-sleaze and high art, with results that are precise, hallucinatory, calmly florid, and bristling with detail. Along with the reverberating, exceptional score by Cat’s Eye, The Duke of Burgundy has more going on than cinematic mind games. (There’s a credit for perfume in the opening titles.)
The Duke of Burgundy doubles down on the genre conventions. There’s voyeurism, bondage, lingerie, fetishism, and high-flown naughtiness galore. Yet it exposes the crippling anxiety behind the leather and lasciviousness, and for all its S&M specificity, it holds a beveled mirror up to the role-play and compromise in all romantic couplings. At its core, it’s an account of a relationship on the ropes, suspended by probing intelligence, a beating heart, and a catalogue of cinematic references, and tempered with surprising wit.
Heavy with feeling and kinky as a coiled cord, The Duke of Burgundy is a deliciously deviant romp into sexual adventure grounded in the universal struggle for enduring intimacy and audaciously disguised as salacious midnight-movie fare. But you must meet the Duke halfway. If you’re willing to enter its world, it’s one of the most incisive, penetrating, and empathetic films in years about what it truly means to love another person; a rewarding, amusing, involving experience that lingers in the mind; a searching investigation of how to ask for what you want – and what it means to get it.
Full of soft-focus nudity, driven by two tremendous central performances and a bottomless well of cinema’s possibilities, The Duke of Burgundy is an affectionate, straight-faced fable of women in love, a salute to the continental soft-core pornos of the 1970s, and a work of intense emotion and intellectual prowess. It shatters boundaries and may just do for erotic Euro-lesbian thrillers what Under the Skin did for sci-fi. It’s rich, dark, and could well lead to intoxication. As one of my colleagues puts it, it’s the stuff dreams are made of.