The Duke of Burgundy
★★★★½ / ★★★★★
Director: Peter Strickland
In Theaters Beginning January 23, 2015 (Limited)
Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) arrives at the opulent home of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a beautiful but stern entomologist. Angry at her maid Evelyn for her lack of perfection, Cynthia spends the day reading books and eating bon-bons and becoming increasingly hostile. By evening, Cynthia has had enough, and subjects Evelyn to perverse and oddly sexual punishment for her failures. When the same scenario begins the very next morning, we see this ritual for what it is: a fantasy concocted by Evelyn, desperate to be dominated by her lover Cynthia.
This intricate love affair is the heart of Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy, the follow-up to his well-received thriller Berberian Sound Studio (2012). A romance with more than a hint of horror and melodrama, The Duke of Burgundy is filled with the kind of vague and inexplicable moments that define softcore porn flicks of the 1970s. It’s a fantasy world, of course; there’s not a single man in the land, the homes are luxurious, all the women are chic and beautiful. There is an abundance of leisure and a standard of living so decadent that the economy can sustain an entire village filled with nothing but lepidopterists and the occasional BDSM equipment salesperson. But who fashions the expensive, custom-made wardrobes that figure so prominently in this world? Why does no one tend the impeccable landscapes? And why does the local university close for the season?
Because these things are narratively convenient, of course; in porn, no other reason is really necessary. Strickland creates a somewhat respectable context for these contrivances, however, seeing them as no more questionable than the sanitized American West or vague Gothic horror of mid-century cinema. With this respectability comes the freedom to portray the women who live in this impossibly picturesque village as fully formed human beings, rather than the barely-there protagonists like O, Emmanuelle, or the women of Radley Metzger’s mid-70s films. This is a story of sex and sadomasochism, after all, so there’s the requisite kink, but almost no nudity. Everything is suggested, often in a gentle, even tongue-in-cheek kind of way, lending a softness and vulnerability to the relationship at the center of the film.
This vulnerability soaks through all the way to the bone in Duke of Burgundy. Cynthia is desperate to not lose her lover, but Evelyn is so desperate to feign a world where she lacks power that she micromanages and bullies and pouts her way into a series of ridiculous situations that involve a whole lot of people doing things they really would rather not do. Cynthia finds herself conflicted and irritated by her lover’s demands, and in Evelyn’s hands, their safeword “pinastri” — a species of moth — becomes a nag instead of an expression of mutually-defined trust.
Their housekeeper Lorna, the lone domestic employee in the film, hovers like a prop in the background, barely acknowledged. Given her employers’ extended fantasies involve her kind of work as being inherently degrading, it’s no wonder she’s silent and distant and, apparently, very hostile. Played by Monica Swann, who appeared in plenty of Eurotrash in the 1970s, including several of Jesus Franco’s films, Lorna’s presence is a firm (and funny) rebuke of Strickland’s attempt to turn downscale pseudo-sophisticated porn into something more honorable.
And yet, Strickland does just that. Underneath the soft filters and tight corsets and wispy fluttering of moth’s wings, The Duke of Burgundy is as real a portrayal of a relationship as one is likely to find in film. The Duke of Burgundy is a richly textured film, a delicate exploration of a complicated relationship and a keen and witty deconstruction of erotica.