What happens when the dom in an S&M relationship is less into it than the sub? What happens when the sub begins to dictate what the dom needs to do to, and what happens when the dom just doesn’t have the passion for it anymore? The Duke of Burgundy is a film that attempts to answer such questions, and it does so in quite an original manner. It results in a film of a strange, occasionally quite creepy, but mostly pastoral and sensual ambience, as if someone had crossed 70s softcore porn with The Wicker Man.
Director Peter Strickland’s previous film Berberian Sound Studio employed many of the same directorial tricks as his latest effort. That film, starring Toby Jones as a sound engineer hired to work on an Italian horror movie in which he found himself going mad, was a very intriguingly-made one but one which I ultimately found cold and lifeless. Put simply, despite its fantastic technical attributes – the claustrophobic cinematography, the creepy sound design, and the slightly ethereal performances – Berberian Sound Studio never managed to make me care all too much about its central character. It never managed to get under his skin, and in turn under mine. It kept its distance, and it felt at times like an exercise in genre and style, designed to impress critics rather than engage with audience members. Yes, it was quite an original and brave film, but it wasn’t a particularly good one despite that.
The Duke of Burgundy keeps most of the original edge of the earlier film whilst adding characters that one actually feels close to. It is absolutely a step in the right direction. This is a film that has at its heart a simple romance; Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is the older, dominant woman, and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) is the young submissive half of the relationship. They appear to live in some kind of otherworldly parallel universe. In this world there are no men to be seen anywhere. Instead, there are only finely dressed women who all seem to study butterflies and moths. They all appear to live in grand old central European houses from the glory days of empire, and there is a carpenter (Fatma Mohamed) who makes specialist S&M furniture. Her business is apparently doing quite well.
Amidst this surreal, off-kilter world, the relationship we are drawn into is a profoundly relatable one. The power balance in a normal S&M role-play is subverted in Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship. In the first scene in the film we see Evelyn arrive at the house, only to be told by Cynthia that she is late; so begins a day of dutiful submission to her master. But immediately thereafter, these scenes are replayed. We find out that Evelyn has written instructions for Cynthia – what to tell her and when, how to behave towards her and so on – and the dynamic immediately changes. Cynthia appears not built for this relationship, and is instead performing as who she thinks Evelyn wants her to be. Is this not a powerful analogy of what so many relationships are like? When we are in love we are constantly subsuming ourselves to try and make the other person happy. We associate their happiness with our happiness, and this is one of the most powerful aspects of human love. But when it goes wrong, it leads to repression and sadness, being stuck forever performing a role in which you can’t breathe and be yourself. It’s as if Ben Elton enslaved you and made you perform the lead role in We Will Rock You every night forever.
The Duke of Burgundy goes deep inside the minds of its characters. Structurally it is again similar to Berberian Sound Studio. Both films start fairly normally, albeit with an unerring atmosphere of unease, whilst the middle section attempts to get at the root of their respective characters’ anxieties and neuroses, with both finishing by tipping into full-on Lynchian surrealism. Yet, whilst in Berberian Sound Studio this felt more like a director showing off how many tricks he has in his bag, in The Duke of Burgundy it has a narrative sense to it – we peer directly inside both Cynthia’s and Evelyn’s minds and come off understanding their relationship all the better for it.
This is a sensual, rather erotic movie too, and impressively it is done with very few gratuitous scenes of sexual sweating. Suggestion, dialogue, and lighting are the tools used instead, and the images captured by the film’s cinematographer Nic Knowland are at times genuinely breathtaking. The Duke of Burgundy is an early contender for one of the highlights of the year.