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THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY – BFI London Film Festival 2014

October 16, 2014

FestivalsFilm + EntertainmentReview | by Francesco Cerniglia


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Peter Strickland takes his mesmerizing and twisted approach honed in Berberian Sound Studio to a tribute and reinvention of the seventies kitsch European erotica films. The Duke of Burgundy is a hazy, hypnotic study of an intense relationship between two women that has all the same arguments, problems and passion as any normal couple has, but with a dynamic balancing spice of sadomasochism.

Set in a world without men and where buying ‘human toilets’ is not out of the ordinary, The Duke of Burgundy follows a fetishized relationship between Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna ) and Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) in a convention-breaking love story. The film opens with Evelyn submissively following Cynthia’s demands as her daily servant, from cleaning bookcases to washing her underwear.

However, a short while later, it is revealed that what we’ve been watching has all been a role-play act to fuel the passions in bed. Questions start to pop up over who is really controlling whom, who is bound to whom, and how a sadomasochistic relationship can function when one party starts to fade interest in the exotic details.

While Evelyn is tantalized by the intense power of submission to Cynthia, her partner begins to yearn for a more affectionate love. When Evelyn is not-so-subtly suggesting that she wants to be tied up and locked inside a box overnight, she utters the words we’ve heard in every romance film from a sulking boyfriend or girlfriend, ‘It would be nice if I didn’t have to ask.’ It’s certainly a different sort of love story from what we are used to gracing the screen.

Often when there’s an art erotica film based on a lesbian relationship directed by a male director, it’s often fraught with danger of becoming an cheap exploitative story and a misunderstood relationship. However, although lewd and driven by the sexual spark, Strickland handles the relationship with such finesse that he chisels beyond the sadomasochistic salacious front.

Instead of becoming a 50 Shades of Grey, The Duke of Burgundy becomes much more about the emotions at play underneath the passion and sex drives. Although an eccentric relationship, it deals with very real problems from a loss of passion, betrayals of trust and when one partner starts to mature faster than the other. It’s not often that a film with a scene where a lover urinates in another’s mouth (albeit off-screen) can drift seamlessly into a gentle love story laden with tension.

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Also key to the rhythm and kaleidoscope texture of the scenes is the music. Clearly adept at complimenting the sound to the picture from his previous feature adventure into Giallo sound effects, Strickland employs Cat’s Eyes, including one member of the psychedelic-indie band The Horrors, to weave an immersive soothing lure into the film. The soundscape, from cat’s purrs to the creak of a locked box used for ‘punishment’ warm the scenes up perfectly.

However, you have to accept the film from the get-go to get fully on board, which may be more difficult for some to get with the playful sadomasochism and kitsch tribute approach. Nevertheless, Strickland remains an exciting prospect of a British auteur at work at the moment who brings something new to the table with each feature. Having already dissected giallo cinema and revenge thrillers in his previous two films, and now the erotica film, it will be fascinating to see where Strickland turns next.

The Duke Of Burgundy is released in UK cinemas on February 20th

Oliver Smith