TIFF 2014: The Duke of Burgundy
Peter Strickland’s sapphic giallo dream is a tied up and twisted masterpiece.
A few minutes into Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy, the matron of a gorgeous European estate pulls her maid into a bathroom and pisses into her mouth. That’s the exact moment when it becomes clear that these two women are deeply in love with each other.
Perhaps the major discovery of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, The Duke of Burgundy is a Certified Copy riff for the S&M crowd, Strickland’s third feature cementing his status as a world talent while also assimilating shades of early Fassbinder and a diffuse (but palpable) giallo atmosphere into its cheeky exploration of relationships and their performative nature. A gagged and bound two-hander that proves visually ravishing despite seldom stepping outside of the sprawling property on which its set, The Duke of Burgundy begins with a waifish Italian housekeeper named Cynthia (Chiara D’Anna) biking through the woods to the house of her employer, Evelyn (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Evelyn is an amateur lepidopterist, the brunt of her free time spent lecturing a local women’s group about the intricacies of the various butterflies she’s catalogued.
The source of Evelyn’s wealth is as much of an enduring mystery as the source of her existence – The Duke of Burgundy joining the likes of The Women and The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kantas one of the rare films to be entirely devoid of men. The intimacy of Strickland’s focus and his agreeably suffocating snow globe technique go so far as to suggest that Cynthia and Evelyn occupy an alternate universe in which they’re the only sex. The Duke of Burgundy is so comprehensively absent of male presence that the lesbian relationship at the heart of the film isn’t touched by the sense of otherness that’s inherent to most queer cinema – the manner in which it’s revealed that the two women are lovers is so shocking that their shared gender becomes a distant afterthought, the same sex dynamic relevant only for how fluidly it allows Cynthia and Evelyn to modulate the roles they play for one another.
Strickland is a fetishistic stylist, the emerging auteur having already made a name for himself with Katalin Varga andBerberian Sound Studio by infusing a modernist severity to exploitation aesthetics. The Duke of Burgundy finds him pushing even further in that direction, the film’s form so inextricable from its style that it boasts what might be the cinema’s first “Perfume” credit in the opening titles (as if no sense could be spared). The gothically lovelorn score by the band Cat’s Eyes drapes the film in a dreamy veil of morbid romance, and Strickland’s frequent detours into associative insect imagery underscore the story with the dormant threat of metamorphosis (the metaphor is never explicit or on the nose, and that vagueness allows for an ominous sense of body horror that makes Evelyn’s anxieties urgent and real). Strickland even nods to Brakhage in a climactic sequence that provides this giddily repressed film with its only moment of howling release. The fact that the film doesn’t show so much as an errant nipple makes it all the more kinky, adding to the sensation that you’re getting too much pleasure from something that you shouldn’t even be watching.
The Duke of Burgundy, the inexplicable title of which becomes a devilish tease for the imagination, is tender and mournful, but also smirkingly fun and seriously hot. The actresses may be living extensions of Strickland’s style, but D’Anna and Knudsen deliver such deviously controlled performances that the movie seems to obey their every command. Both women are tasked with negotiating between dominant and submissive roles, the film growing exponentially richer and more complex as it becomes harder to tell which is which. D’Anna, a compact and coiled Audrey Hepburn type who speaks like an Italian-inflected Charlotte Gainsbourg, is absolutely perfect as the younger woman who’s hostage to her own humiliations. Knudsen is just as strong in a more sedate (if less restrained) role – she’s asked to play a woman of such inner darkness that an entire dream sequence can be set in the black void between her thighs, and it’s riveting to watch her come to terms with who she has to be to be in order to be who she is. After all, a human toilet is all fun and games until you have to flush it.
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