The Duke Of Burgundy
SEPTEMBER, 2014 | BY ALLAN HUNTER
Dir/scr: Peter Strickland. UK. 2014. 106mins
Peter Strickland confirms his growing
reputation as the champion of notoriously disreputable genres with The Duke
Of Burgundy. Having reclaimed the gaillo in Berberian Sound Studio,
he now channels his inner Jess Franco and Jean Rollin to revisit the heyday of
1970s continental soft porn. He meticulously deconstructs the genre to create a
drily witty, idiosyncratic exploration of a sado-masochistic lesbian
relationship increasingly challenged by the gap between fantasy role playing
and banal but much less exhausting reality.
It is an odd, original and beguiling work.
There are strong echoes of Jean Genet’s The Maids
here and the driving intensity of Peter Greenway’s films. Whether 1970s soft
porn deserves such a slavish devotee is a moot point and one that might be lost
on mainstream audiences unwilling to indulge Strickland’s folly. As we have
come to expect from Strickland, the film is impeccably crafted and acted
throughout and should arouse the curiosity of hardcore arthouse audiences and
fans of his strikingly singular sensibility.
All the elements traditionally enjoyed by the dirty mac
brigade of yore are lovely assembled here as we are immersed in a world of silk
stockings, lace panties, tight skirts and high heels. The fact that none of it
is remotely erotic is also in keeping with the films of the period.
Maid Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) arrives at a vast mansion to
begin her chores. Mistress Cynthia (Side Babett Knudsen) is particularly
demanding; finding fault with her work and promising to punish her
insubordination. It transpires that the two women are lovers and this ritual is
a regular part of their relationship.
Both are only too aware that they are playing roles in a
story, something that Strickland constantly underlines as we see the collection
of wigs that Cynthia owns and the written instructions that determine the
course of the scenario. The more enthusiastic Evelyn questions her partner’s
commitment to their games and encourages her to act more spontaneously. ” Try
to have more conviction in your voice next time, ” she begs.
A good deal of the bone dry humour in The Duke Of
Burgundy stems from the stark contrast between the role playing fantasy and
the life where Cynthia wears frumpy pyjamas, snores in bed and has a bad back
that doesn’t leave her in the mood for love. ” I need an instruction manual to
get into half of the things you buy me, ” Cynthia complains and she clearly
wants a more conventional relationship of cuddles, affection and shared
The submissive Evelyn is hungry for more intense
experiences and extreme fantasies and that divergence of desire could be what
threatens the end the relationship.
Cynthia’s profession of orthopterist and Evelyn’s passion
for lepidoptery gives Strickland the excuse to punctuate the film with scenes
of butterflies, larvae, cricket sounds, scientific drawings and lectures in
which some audience members are clothed mannequins. In the press notes,
Strickland claims that they represent “no intended metaphors” but merely add to
the atmosphere of an autumnal film steeped in change, decay and possible
We have no notion where the film is set or when and there is,
apparently, no particular significance to the title, Strickland merely ” found
it amusing having a male name for such a female story.” In the end The Duke
Of Burgundy is a complex, melancholy romance in which love is sustained by
negotiating the limits of desire and understanding the expectations of your
partner. It is an odd, original and beguiling work.
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