The Duke of Burgundy, review: ‘hair-raisingly kinky’
Toronto Film Festival: Peter Strickland’s sexually charged feature is spiced with British wit, says Robbie Collin
Dir?ector?: Peter Strickland?.? Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, Monica Swinn, Eugenia Caruso, Fatma Mohamed, Eszter Tompa. Cert TBA, 101 mins.
Had it not already been snaffled by Ingmar Bergman, another apt title for the new Peter Strickland film would have been Persona. The Duke of Burgundy, Strickland’s spectral, seductive third feature, is about the strange imposture of love: the way it can leave you feeling not quite yourself, suspended, even trapped between the person you really are and the person your partner craves.
Like Bergman’s film, Strickland’s is about a burningly intimate relationship between two women that blossoms in a place set apart from the real world. In Persona, that was the remote Swedish island of Fårö; here, it’s a picturesque village surrounded by a moss-draped forest in what appears to be Eastern Europe. It’s also entirely inhabited by women. The film contains no men.
It opens on Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) sitting calmly in a glade by a stream. It’s a quiet place, a kind of sanctuary, perhaps, and Strickland’s camera roams over gnarled bark and toadstools. She climbs on her bicycle and rides back into town, and the opening titles play over a jolly tune, although a handful of unusual credits – Perfumes by Je Suis Gizelle, for one – make you wonder whose fiction, exactly, we might be straying into.
Another credit here attributes not simply the clothes, but “dress and lingerie”, to Andrea Flesch – a real costume designer, but with a name that could hardly be bettered by a fantasy one. This is, I think, the first film I’ve ever seen to offer a specific lingerie credit, and certainly the first to do so within five minutes of the film’s beginning. Let’s just say in this case, credit is due.
Evelyn is a housekeeper in the employ of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen, best known for playing the Danish Prime Minster in the television series Borgen), a keen collector of butterflies and moths who lectures at a local institute. One of her display cases is full of the titular insect: a smallish, rare-ish, tiger-mottled creature with a plump body and fuzzy antennae.
When Evelyn arrives home, Cynthia scolds her; when she apologises, Cynthia casually tosses a sweet wrapper on the floor and makes her pick it up. Ashamed, Evelyn scuttles off to the laundry room to wash ?her mistress’s underwear, and again, Strickland’s camera again roves over the details, finding visual echoes in the lace and suds, and watching how long each rainbow-coloured bubble takes to pop.
As should now be reasonably clear, The Duke of Burgundy is hair-raisingly kinky stuff, although only after a while do we realise the film itself is engaged in role-play with its audience, meeting certain expectations that it later tantalisingly subverts. Lines of dialogue that once meant one thing are suddenly charged with their opposite meaning. There’s even a safe-word, ? “?pinaster?”?, one of the varieties of pines that cloak the village from the outside world.
In the same way Strickland’s last film, Berberian Sound Studio, invoked the black gloves and curdled screams of giallo horror without actually making a home for itself in that genre, The Duke of Burgundy draws on the sexually charged European chillers of the late 1970s, by directors like Jess Franco and Joe D’Amato – it operates at the same kind of sex-dazed remove as Vampyros Lesbos or Lorna the Exorcist, although here, that forbidden creaminess comes spiced with very British humour. (During an anxious discussion about the construction times of various elaborate bondage devices, a character called ?”?the Carpenter?”?, played by Fatma Mohamed, chirpily suggests: “Would a human toilet be of interest?”)
Elsewhere, there are psychedelic, moth-based hallucinations that recall Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill, and a sinister Lynchian dream that begins with a Mulholland Drive-like zoom into a box, of sorts. Knudsen and D’Anna are both terrific, and have tremblingly palpable chemistry, although the film is so teasing and elusive that after one viewing, you just want to watch the thing again, and feel your way again around its contours. Second time around, I suspect I might love it even more. I gasped and squirmed, but never once thought of shouting ?”?pinaster?”?.
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