The Duke of Burgundy June 27, 2017
Franco and Rollin were not talented men, simply perverts who, on occasion, could dress their generally softcore works in enough barely-there arthouse style to make it seem as though they were honing an aesthetic. For those filmmakers, moments of incidental mastery could sometimes proliferate: Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) was a sometimes visually stunning, atmospheric vampire feature with an abundance of nudity, and Rollin’s Fascination (1979) was a sumptuous psychological horror thriller that found the hard-to-reach middle-ground between gore and beauty.
But, nevertheless, most of the features creeping in their oeuvre are a lot more fun to talk about and look at photographs of than actually watch: it can be painful sitting through a tangle of plodding dialogue, wooden acting, and choppy editing and sequencing, after all.
Strickland, fortunately, takes everything that made those aforementioned films intriguing — the shadowy sets, the enigmatic women, the ominous ambience, the carnal overtones — and polishes them with the pedigree of an undeniably skilled auteur. One would like to think that the movie in question, The Duke of Burgundy, is pure pastiche. But like other recent seemingly era-obsessed movies, such as Anna Biller’s spotless The Love Witch (2016), we have marvelous, singular filmmaking which, at first glance, appears to be a love letter to the past. And The Duke of Burgundy is, partially. But it’s also so much more than that.
It is a psychosexual drama that flirts with the textures of a psychological thriller, although it never comes to the head that we think it will. It is headlined by a pair of beautiful actresses, Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna, whom Strickland lenses with the erotic gaze of Pedro Almodóvar or David Lynch. In it, they play lovers in the grips of a role-playing dominated relationship, in which the elder of the two, Cynthia (Knudsen) acts as the dominant to the younger Evelyn (D’Anna). Cynthia pretends to be her lover’s employer, while Evelyn puts on the guise of a maid who routinely gets “punished” for performing her tasks “incorrectly.”
It’s a bizarre, obsessive relationship which reveals itself to be something completely different than we originally consider it to be. Cynthia is not into the dynamic at all. In fact, she despises it, craving a normal, healthy relationship. The role-playing is Evelyn’s doing, everything Cynthia does carefully scripted beforehand. It’s also disclosed that, in addition to being her lover, Evelyn is also Cynthia’s student: the latter is a professor who specializes in the field of lepidopterology, and regularly gives lectures at the nearby university.
In some ways, The Duke of Burgundy resembles Franco’s She Killed in Ecstasy (1971), which was also concerned with sadomasochism and domination in sexual relationships and used the world of science and medicine as a backdrop. But The Duke of Burgundy, predictably, considering how awful Ecstasy is, is much better at conjoining sexual imagery with scientific detachment. It is a sensual, carefully maneuvered film — images of lingerie, candlelit rooms, baroque architecture, dense forestry, and the female body are magnified — balanced by its aloof depiction of biology. It strictly appeals to the senses. And, given how much an optic maestro Strickland is, that’s a thrill.
It’s not the first time the filmmaker has explored niche genres of 40 years ago and redefined them. His breakout movie, Berberian Sound Studio (2013), subverted the tropes of Italian horror and instead put a spotlight on the demons infesting the soul of one vulnerable man. The Duke of Burgundy is no different. At its center is it an homage to European softcore. But by its end does it become hard to strictly categorize — it is a rich, lusciously made haunter that places Strickland among the more underrated artists of his generation. B+
Sidse Babett Knudsen
1 Hr., 41 Mins.
eter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (2015) is what 1970s Eurotrash would look like if it were made by a competent director and not an accidental artiste like, say, Jesús Franco or Jean Rollin. The movie does everything the latter two directors ever “refined” in their heydays — mostly the photographing of pale, long-haired beauties participating in various censored sexual acts amidst gothic interiors and psychedelic music — but does it well.