Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy arrives at Sydney Film Festival with a very strong critical reputation, which it mostly lives up to. Strickland’s rare mastery of visual texture and sound design is transported over from his previous film, Berberian Sound Studio, making it an immediate highlight of the festival from a purely audiovisual standpoint. It has, however, been somewhat mischaracterised by many reviewers; painted as a mysterious look at sadomasochism, and showcasing an enigmatic bond between two women in the vein of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona or Robert Altman’s 3 Women. That’s not necessarily wrong, but I’d argue misguided; more a plot summary or reworded PR release for a film that, to my eyes, was straightforward and quite easily readable at least emotionally. Mysterious only insofar as love and sex are from a biological point of view, this film is not a great arthouse puzzle so much as an all-too-familiar portrait of a waning love affair; of the compromises and understandings that can make and ultimately break a special bond between two individuals. That the relationship and the film’s presentation both veer toward the quite out of the ordinary only turns an extremely effective film into a very special one.
In a town in an indeterminable time and country, a maid, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), rides her bike through village before stopping at the ornate mansion of her mistress Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). She’s late – she’s always late – and is treated with cold indifference as she is ordered to do various chores around the house, while being constantly criticised and passive-aggressively abused. Finally she is chastised for having failed in her laundry duties and required to be ‘punished’. In a jarring effect that first makes us aware of our voyeurism into this arrangement, the door is closed on the camera as Evelyn is taken into the bathroom for her punishment, the nature of which we are unsure, but the film’s sharp use of sound gives us some implications. The whole sequence is a tremendously tense affair, as we identify with Evelyn’s innocent maid and fear the calculating, icy stare and demeanour of Cynthia. It’s also a complete fiction. As we come to understand, Evelyn and Cynthia are lovers, and this is a roleplaying routine executed to precision, endlessly. Their real life personalities seem quite different, and we are witness to other issues and conflict in their relationship – jealousy, neglect and fears about remaining desirable impeding the bond underneath between them.
Such a chamber film hinges much of its aspirations on its lead players, and D’Anna and Knudsen. Not well known to English audiences (D’Anna’s only previous screen credit was Berberian Sound Studio; Knudsen an accomplished Danish actor, perhaps best known for Borgen), both deliver stunning performances in what amount to dual roles as so much of the film involves this roleplaying exercise to which one of them demands absolute perfectionism. Strickland avoids easy troops and characterisations with the fetishes, so the nature of the performances differ starkly – Cynthia plays as the demanding sadist, masking both her caring nature and self-consciousness as the older partner in the relationship, while Evelyn’s more impetuous and capriciousness adds nuance to her devoted, submissive routine. We slowly pull together clues as to their relationship, especially as the character’s roleplaying sessions start to show cracks; out of which a very affecting story of romantic and sexual attraction plays out in front of us, of the lengths we go to for those we love, and the tolls that they can take on us. Berberian detractors cite Strickland as a style-over-substance filmmaker; in that film I have time for those arguments (though in an essentially Kafkaesque folly, forgivable), but this seems a considerable move forward; a moving portrait of some very human emotions and experiences that I genuinely believe has lessons to tell us about how we treat those closest to us.
But to not even mention The Duke of Burgundy’s visual style would be negligent, and must form a substantial part of any true recommendation to this startling picture; set in a baroque mansion surrounded by lush greenery and filling the frame with lush materials and textured wood, Strickland offers us a film of great beauty and texture that we can almost touch, and with an intoxicating sound design that immerses us even through some of its zanier moments, especially in its scenes showcasing the characters’ obsessions with insects. Indebted to European auteurs of yesteryear, his influences are refreshingly left-field; his previous film paid homage to Italian giallo films, and Duke drew inspiration from ‘Eurosleaze’ movies of the 60s and 70s; its central S&M relationship fits right in the playbook of Alain Robbe-Grillet, and its essence seems closer affiliated to something of the questionable artistic value of the Emmanuelle series than Antonioni or Godard. And in yet a clever irony, Strickland subverts these atypical influences with his discretion – The Duke of Burgundy‘s cinematic ancestors wantonly provided nudity and excess under the pretense of arthouse drama and in supposed service of character. Strickland does the opposite, offering a genuine character study with admirable restraint (it’s a film of charged eroticism with zero nudity) while the film parades outwardly as embracing a heritage of exploitation films. It’s a unique relationship to genre and film history, from a unique director. Along with the other idiosyncrasies of the film that he teases out – are there any male characters in the world of the film? Why are the extras occasionally obviously deployed mannequins? – and a moving central relationship, this is a rich film that demands your attention, and will likely hold on to it long after the credits roll.
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