Forget 50 Shades of Grey, the erotic thriller you need to watch this month is Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy. The Berberian Sound Studio director is back with another lush, giallo-inspired offering that brings along a fair amount of Hammer influences just for the hell of it. Every syllable uttered, every frame of film, is sexually charged and full of meaning.
The Duke of Burgundy is hypnotically gorgeous, deliberately paced, and lit like a 1970s softcore porn. Set in what appears to be a female-only alternate reality, two lovers—entomologist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her maid Evelyn (Chiara D’Annna)—engage in a dominant-submissive sadomasochistic relationship. Evelyn chides the younger woman for being late, forces her to clean and re-clean the study over and over again, and lets just say there are some unusual punishments when her undies aren’t hand scrubbed just so—there’s tinkle involved.
Cynthia drags Evelyn to her entomology gatherings, seemingly forcing her will on the young domestic. The true brilliance of The Duke of Burgundy, however, comes in how Strickland builds your expectations only to subvert them, pulling the rug out form underneath you, changing how you look at the relationship he spends the first portion of the film building. The true seat of power shifts multiple times throughout the film, and more than that, your understanding of where the power lies is fluid.
As the two indulge in their role-play, scenes unfold multiple times in almost identical fashion. Though the words said are the same, what they mean is drastically different each time. The relationship changes and frays as each drifts, pulls away, and comes back. Things start not to fit as well, from clothes to roles to the custom locking drawer with hand restraints Cynthia has specially constructed for Evelyn’s birthday. Psychologically complex, their relationship is simultaneously abusive, tender, erotic, sensual, and complicated.
Filmed in a warm, near hallucinatory haze, cinematographer Nicholas D. Knowland’s camera wears a warm, gauzy filter and uses frames, reflections, and boundaries to delineate the separate women just as refracted images indicate the various sides of their relationship and distinct personalities. It lends the whole film a voyeuristic feel of confinement that runs all the way down toe the clothes—Cynthia is bound by her outfits, tied up in corsets, contained in sleek, silky hose, confined, compartmentalized. Stunning, startling images of insects, specifically various species of moths, add a near monstrous horror effect, enhancing the strange sense of tension that never lets up throughout the picture, driving the narrative forward.
For a movie that is all mood and atmosphere and implication, The Duke of Burgundy has a remarkable human heart, with a level of intimacy and empathy that you rarely encounter. As cold and chilly as their staged erotic interactions can be, there’s a warmth, a tenderness, and a genuine affection running beneath the surface. Within genre tropes, they explore ideas of age and class, desire and romance.
A small story of extremes, The Duke of Burgundy is dreamy and moving, visually and sonically vivid, and completely unlike anything you’re going to see elsewhere. For all of the influences, Strickland has crafted a wholly unique film that is both strange and pedestrian, foreign and relatable. [Grade: A-]