Director: Peter Strickland
Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Monica Swinn, Chiara D’Anna, Kata Bartsch
As the description on my blog says, I’m not the most educated on film history. I watch a lot of movies, but when you start to delve deeper into really niche genres, that’s when I will struggle to hold my own. I don’t view it as a negative trait though, because when researching into ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ prior to watching it I unearthed two things. The first of which is the excellent director Peter Strickland, of whom I had not heard of until now. In preparation for the film, I watched ‘Katalin Varga‘, his first film made on a very small budget; shot in Romania, in the Hungarian language, despite not speaking the language himself. It was a strange, atmospheric and eerily haunting rape-revenge film. I am yet to review it, but I was blown away. The second revelation when reading about his influences on ‘The Duke of Burgundy’, was just how vast this genre of 60/70s erotica was. I have ‘Belle De Jour’ and the Alain Robbe-Grillet DVD boxset, but this is as far as my knowledge went. There is nothing quite like the feeling when you unearth an entire sub-genre you had little to no idea about, a film you did not know existed and a director you had not heard of.
There’s no shame in being “uneducated”, it makes it all the more exciting when you discover something new.
En route to the film I had a copy of Time Out and Evening Standard, both of which had made it their film of the week, both of which described everything that happened in the film. However, what shocked me was that a film of this appearance was being given such a platform to such a wider audience. It is certainly not ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. As was described in the introduction at the showing, “Fifty Shades of Grey is Ann Summers, The Duke of Burgundy is Agent Provocateur“, much to a loud scoff of laughter from the audience.
It is exactly that though. A decadent piece of alternative erotica, following a short time period of two women, both butterfly and moth enthusiasts, who explore their sensual, emotional and physical desires through a series of S&M role-plays. It is impeccably shot, with no definitive time period assigned to it. We don’t need to know. It gives it a sort of fairytale like feeling to it, immediately immersed into their world and there is little explanation for the events that take place. No backstories – things just happen. Do we always need a reason? Strickland was keen to establish this in the Q&A, as he said, “there’s always a backstory, always an excuse… she was a crack addict, that’s why she likes S&M”. In addition to that there are no men in the film, at all, not even in the statues in the garden. A deliberate choice by Strickland, because a film about S&M and the balance of power would be immediately thrown off by the inclusion of men. It creates unnecessary arguments and by keeping at a level playing field, so to speak, the power is universal and the assignment of it all the more intriguing. To distance himself further from the erotica genre, there is no nudity in the film either. A strange choice, but it keeps the focus on the characters and their surroundings, rather than letting it sink into turgid mummy porn. Instead of a plethora of latex and leather, they are dressed in dated yet elegant clothes, and a series of lacy, silky and tasteful lingerie outfits appear in the more kinkier scenes. Corsets, fishnets, heels and boots aplenty in this film – but tasteful nonetheless.
The appearance of the film is only heightened by the accompanying score. The regal European home set in the middle of nowhere, the endless cycle of role-play and the infatuation between the two leads each has it’s own piece of atmospheric, shoegazey, folk-like music assigned to it, mirroring the mood exactly. This score is spliced between Stricklands infamous use of whitenoise like sounds, this time the sounds of the butterflies and moths amplified to a disorientating level, cut up with insane visuals that break up the routine nature of the film itself. Surreal, strange and unexpected at times – it is at this stage the casual viewer may finally lose the plot.
That is if they haven’t left already. In a throwback to 60s/70s style porn, the acting as described by Sidse Babett Knudsen who plays Cynthia in the film, was “deliberately bad” during the Dom/Sub/S&M scenes. You notice it more as the film progresses, the difference between the chemistry and level of emotion demonstrated when they are ‘in the zone’ and when they are just being a couple is quite significant. Chiara D’Anna who plays the submissive, Evelyn, is charming, young and seemingly naïve – it is incredibly convincing and only adds to the films intrigue. The two leads here are excellent, and it is largely due to Strickland’s creative mind that they are able to be as interesting as they are. The focus in this film is not on the S&M, but rather on the relationship itself. As he said in the Q&A, what he wanted to achieve was to have something that is perceived to be ‘abnormal’ or ‘strange’ and put it into a world where it was perceived as the norm. An example of doing so was to set their S&M activities against the backdrop of a small society of butterfly and moth enthusiasts, not only did it make for immensely striking imagery and metaphors I am not concerned about unearthing, but it made the former activity seem normalised. In doing so, we view Cynthia and Evelyn in an altogether different light.
With the focus on the relationships the film becomes a talking point not for S&M as a practice or hobby, but a talking point for the position and shifts of power within relationships and the willingness to concede to please the other. To give any more away would spoil the film, but while on the surface it may seem like an art-house styled film, trying too hard to be alternative – I can assure you, it isn’t. It does not take itself too seriously, there is a string of humour that emerges not out of awkwardness or cheap laughs, but out of the honest portrayal of a relationship dynamic. It just so happens that they are into Domination, Submission and S&M and that these elements form the foundation for their exploration of each others wants and desires.
Essential viewing for fans of the genre, the director, or even a complete newcomer like myself. You won’t see a film like it for a long time.