Director: Peter Strickland
Runtime: 106 minutes
Campy, sexy, and mesmerizing, The Duke of Burgundy represents a giant leap forward for British director Peter Strickland. The director last appeared at AFI Fest two years ago with Berberian Sound Studio, a 70's horror-influenced mystery that eventually drowned in its own self-conscious weirdness. With Duke, however, Strickland has made his characters more than just figures to wander through the frame looking as bewildered as the audience. Some of the film's stylistic flourishes are a bit head-scratching, but Strickland's sensitivity towards his actors, amidst all of the atmosphere, helps this film reach that oddly sublime territory that Sound Studio never found.
Set in Europe (no country is named) during the 60s, Duke opens with a scene that could practically be the intro to an especially cheesy porno. Young, wide-eyed maid Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) arrives at the manor of butterfly collector Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), where she's bossed around by the older woman. It's all rather stiff in a way that doesn't make it clear whether or not the phoniness is intentional. Eager to get to the heart of the matter, Strickland quickly pushes past his silly opening and reveals that Duke has much more going on.
The Duke of Burgundy, even with its lush visuals and heaving bosoms in lingerie, is actually the year's most engaging romances. Not only are Evelyn and Cynthia actually lovers, but it's Evelyn who pulls the strings in their roleplaying and S&M endeavors, despite acting in the submissive role. Evelyn's pouty, breathy intonations can be grating, but Cynthia is a remarkable and complicated character. As the older woman (not to mention the breadwinner of the house), Cynthia must deal with self doubt, paranoia about aging, and her declining interest in the roleplaying games while her lover's appetite only increases.
Knudsen's performance is a big part of why The Duke of Burgundy avoids being nothing more than an exercise of atmosphere. Cynthia plays the dominant role, but given external circumstances, that dominance is a trap. Knudsen brings out Cynthia's vulnerability while still maintaining the character's often steely demeanor. Both leads are tasked with playing characters pretending to be in the their opposite relationship roles, but it's in Cynthia that the film finds its resonance.
Strickland continually references European erotic films from the 60s and 70s, but his vision manages to avoid cheap exploitation. Rather than mercilessly toy with his characters like some spiteful god, the director normalizes most of their relationship, even as he asks us to laugh at some of the details. By not condemning Cynthia and Evelyn's relationship, Strickland continually intrigues with each new development. The relationship's normalization makes the film more relatable, not less. Strip away the non-stop roleplaying, and The Duke of Burgundy is simply exploring the later stages of a romantic and sexual relationship, and the struggles that arise when the parties involved aren't on the same page.
That said, fans of Strickland's first two films needn't worry that the director has gone soft. Strickland's characters may get more earnest attention, but The Duke of Burgundy is still a lush work of cinematic hypnotism. In one early scene, Evelyn watches Cynthia pull on some lingerie through a keyhole. At first, the scene appears to me nothing more than shameless voyeurism on behalf of a naive, simple woman. But when the film returns to the same scene a second and third time, and the audience becomes privy to the actual balance of power, the film's blurring of roleplaying and reality starts to congeal.
Even Strickland's dips into strangeness for the sake of strangeness come across as refined and purposeful. The meaning of some scenes, like one intense montage of butterfly wings, may remain elusive, but at least this time Strickland doesn't get mired in his own visuals. And speaking of visuals, The Duke of Burgundy has a myriad of striking imagery that rivals Cynthia's expansive butterfly collection. The sumptuous, gothic visuals - elegantly strung together by the playful and mysterious editing - are more than worth the price of admission. Strickland and cinematographer Nic Knowland, without going for any big, show-off moments, draw one in deeper and deeper not only into Cynthia and Evelyn's life, but their isolated and gloomy home. The manor starts as a handsome, yet muted, living space, but gradually becomes less hospitable as the two women's relationship falters. As if the visuals weren't enough, brooding and ethereal musical contributions from British-Canadian band Cat's Eyes add the perfect finish to the film's atmosphere. Whether or not The Duke of Burgundy makes sense to the head is secondary to whether it makes sense to the eyes and ears.