Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, Fatma Mohamed
Cynthia (Knudsen) is a lepidopterist who lives in a large beautiful house in the countryside where she exerts dominance and power over her maid Chiara (D’Anna) of a sexual nature as punishment for a poor job. These two lovers then play an increasing game of sexual dominance and subservience to test the limits of their relationship and each other.
As with Peter Strickland’s previous film, the excellent Berberian Sound Studio, it is a film with a plot that is difficult to sum up and also has a narrative that is, shall we say, unconventional by mainstream standards. Also, like Strickland’s last film, The Duke of Burgundy certainly contains heavy influences to past film genres and movements, all of which are rather niche genres. Of course I could copy and paste off the internet a list of directors that The Duke Of Burgundy potentially pays homage to, but with the exception of Luis Buñuel I am happy to admit that I have little knowledge of this, just like with Berbarian Sound Studio I am happy to admit that apart from Suspiria I had only a basic knowledge of the films that paid homage to. Strickland is a diligent student of cinema as well as an extremely talented filmmaker, and is not making films for mainstream mass appeal and should be applauded for doing so, but of course to pay diligent (but very respectful) homage to such niche genres risks alienating a vast majority of any potential audience. Though of course, likewise in the 21st Century it would be impossible to find any director that is not influenced by the works of other directors or film movements.
No matter how surreal, structurally unconventional, cryptic or indeed niche a film is, for me it still needs at have at its core relatable characters or themes, such as last year’s French surrealist sex comedy/drama You and the Night. Strickland is an intelligent filmmaker and he makes sure that first and foremost The Duke of Burgundy does very much have that, as at its heart is a simple story of a couple in a relationship that face the challenge of trying to accommodate each other’s needs and desires. Strickland himself has stated in interviews that every relationship involves some level of compromise because there is always one individual that has sexual desires that surpass the others in some respect and both parties are forced to find a compromise. This may well be a much bigger compromise made by one party than the other as of course both want to make the other happy through potential fear of losing them. It is this very relatable subject and story at the foundation of The Duke of Burgundy and it is this (and of course the complementary aesthetics) that helps to make it such an engaging film.
In the case of The Duke of Burgundy the story is about the relationship of two women, but it could be easily be about a man and a woman, or two men. The gender of the two individuals is irrelevant and those looking for a cheap thrill from watching two lesbians on screen will be very disappointed; The Duke of Burgundy is not graphic, but simply suggestive, and indeed if it just contained graphic sex scenes then it would just completely undermine itself. The film is erotic and many scenes are erotically charged but only by the use of suggestion and subtlety, one such scene involves a character known as ‘the carpenter’ (Fatma Mohamed) and the scene simply involves glances, a tape measure and no dialogue, but is so highly charged in intoxicating sexual atmosphere.
As the narrative develops and unveils revelations about the relationship between Cynthia and Chiara and just who is struggling to accommodate whose sexual desires, what develops is a tale that is always nothing less than engaging, particularly as Strickland very skilfully makes sure that the narrative has so many moments that we are never completely sure of the exact state of play and the legitimacy of words that are said. The audience is most certainly kept on their toes, and it only makes for more engaging viewing as we care for these two characters and do want them to be happy.
Strickland has already proved himself to be a true auteur and master of his craft and aesthetically The Duke of Burgundy is a film rich in intoxicating atmosphere. Every single shot is wonderfully put together with provocative and highly suggestive imagery that tantalises the viewer and Nicholas D. Knowland’s wonderfully autumnal cinematography only enhances this, especially with the beautiful shots of the house and its surroundings. Likewise Matyas Fekete’s editing enhances Strickland’s deeply provocative imagery and Strickland’s often slow panning camera enhances the dizzying mood of what is already a film positively brimming with atmosphere.
Of course the fact that Cynthia is a lepidopterist is no coincidence and from the film’s title to the safe word the couple use; butterflies and moths dominate the imagery of the film and of course it is open to interpretation just how much the dialogue in the lectures that Cynthia and Chiara attend about Lepidoptera (some lectures conducted by Cynthia) reflects the narrative, but it does provide clear revelations about certain complexes that individuals in their relationship have developed because of the other’s intelligence and expertise in a particular unique field.
Of course great performances are crucial and both Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna are excellent in their roles. In a film of suggestion both capture in their facial expressions a plethora of emotions, in particular Knudsen who (without revealing spoilers) has to play a character that herself is putting on a performance.
Though of course unconventional by mainstream definitions, The Duke of Burgundy has at its heart two relatable characters with relatable and sympathetic intentions and needs and not only is The Duke of Burgundy a film of rich and intoxicating atmosphere with some memorable images, it is at its core a deeply engaging love story. There is also no doubting that repeat viewings will render new revelations and emotions, and that is surely part of the sign of a great film and a great filmmaker.
Once again cementing himself as a true auteur; with the The Duke of Burgundy Peter Strickland has created a deeply engaging, intoxicating and unforgettable love story that is set to be one of the best films of 2015.