The Duke Of Burgundy

Here are two somewhat contradictory things I can tell you about The Duke Of Burgundy, which takes its name from a species of butterfly. It is, I’m fairly certain, quite unlike any other Sapphic S&M lepidoptery-themed psychological romance you have ever seen. At the same time, though, its uniqueness rests on a passionate, you might say slavish, devotion to a particular cinematic style of the past.

Poster art for The Duke Of BurgundyPeter Strickland, who seeded and tended this exquisite hothouse flower of high-toned eroticism, is unabashedly fetishistic in his love of old exploitation movies. His previous feature, Berberian Sound Studio, was a love letter to the Italian horror films of the 1970s. The characters in The Duke Of Burgundy inhabit a carefully imagined alternate reality where film seems not to exist. Bicycles, manual typewriters and slide projectors are the only machines anyone needs. Still, the grainy voluptuousness of the images and the sighing languor and exquisite décor in which these characters dwell conjure an atmosphere of pseudo-aristocratic post-’60s grindhouse Euro-sex.

That is not a precisely technical term. And while it’s true that The Duke Of Burgundy is designed to appeal to (the following words should be said in a leering, silky, vaguely accented whisper) only the most sophisticated tastes, its pleasures require no special film knowledge. All that is required is a liberated imagination, a sympathetic heart, an eye for luxury and an appreciation for the morphology of winged insects.

Filming amid crumbling mansions and overgrown forests, Mr. Strickland conjures a lush utopia populated entirely by women. The typical household consists of a pair of lovers who are also a gentlewoman scientist and her dutiful, sometimes purposely incompetent, maid. The principal profession is entomology, though one woman seems to make a nice living designing and manufacturing bondage beds and ‘human toilets.’ (Like much else in The Duke Of Burgundy, these apparatuses are frequently spoken of but never seen, discretion being, so often, the better part of kink.)

Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) belong to such a ménage, and Mr. Strickland is principally concerned with the exploration of their sexual practices and domestic routines, which amount more or less to the same thing. The rules seem clear enough at first. Evelyn, dark haired and nervous, with trusting eyes and a tremor in her voice, is the servant whose eagerness to please is met with coldness, and whose slightest lapses are severely punished. Cynthia, when her research is interrupted, responds with haughty weariness or outright cruelty to Evelyn’s timid attempts at kindness.

There is the hint of a plot – involving the waning and waxing of affections and the threats posed to bliss by jealousy and boredom – but the film is less a story than a succession of subtly differentiated moods. What gives it momentum is the audience’s gradual discovery of the dynamic between the two women, a daily cycle of ritual and release.

There is exaggeration and a trace of sly humour in the set design, the costumes, the sometimes jarringly jaunty music and the trembling close-ups of leaves, bugs and water. There is also a sense of surrealist sexual comedy in the way Evelyn and Cynthia’s exchanges of power are performed. But in the end there is nothing especially campy about The Duke Of Burgundy, which mocks neither its heroines nor the breathless, naughty screen tradition to which they belong. It’s a love story, and also a perversely sincere (and sincerely perverse) labour of love.

– A.O. Scott, The New York Times

Another U7 Solutions - Web-based solutions to everyday business problems. solution.