Wednesday 25 February 2015

The Duke of Burgundy: An S&M love story to perplex and beguile


The Duke of Burgundy
Director: Peter Strickland
Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’anna
Running time: 104mins

Writer/director Strickland’s follow-up to Berberian Sound Studio is an S&M love story done in the style of low-budget ’70s Euro smut – dream-like, soft focus, lesbians (obviously), all a bit kinky. The sort of thing you’d have, ahem, accidentally stumbled across on the sparsely-stocked shelves of a dodgy corner shop 25 years ago. Unlike the majority of ’70s Euro smut, however, the Duke of Burgundy is full of atmosphere, humour and oddness, looks stunning and contains no nudity whatsoever.

Knudsen (who you’ll immediately recognise as the Danish Prime Minister from Borgen) is Cynthia, Berberian’s D’anna her partner Evelyn. The pair lives in opulent surroundings in an unnamed bit of Europe and regularly role-plays a tightly-scripted scenario in which Cynthia is a haughty lady of the manor, Evelyn her put upon house maid. Evelyn fails to do her chores in a timely manner, Cynthia “punishes” her. Despite the S&M styling – complete with eye-catching, tight-fitting outfits – there’s a cosiness to their unconventional relationship which Strickland himself has even compared to ’70s sitcom Terry and June.

The rituals and role-play are just the way the pair shows their love for each other although it quickly becomes clear their relationship is in something of a slump. Cynthia is less enthusiastic about the whole dom/sub situation than Evelyn – she seems to crave something a little more “straightforward”. Things come to a head when the former puts her back out and insists on wearing unflattering pyjamas rather than one of the many figure-squeezing ensembles her lover has bought for her. The small power struggles that go on within their partnership are one of the film’s most satisfying elements with the pendulum of control first swinging one way then the other.

Evelyn and Cynthia seemingly live in a world (or maybe just a country, region or town) from which men are totally absent, where their lifestyle is the norm and discussing the purchase of a “human toilet” is about as controversial as a trip to Lidl.

To heap eccentricity upon eccentricity, the pair’s main area of interest beyond each other is lepidoptery – the study of butterflies and moths. Cynthia is an expert in the field, her lover a keen amateur. They regularly travel to a local institute and sit in an audience made up entirely of women (apart from a couple of mischievously – and hilariously – placed mannequins) listening to lectures about the subject. It’s all rather baffling and you could spend days trying to work out the significance of a motif that runs throughout the film. Perhaps it speaks to the fragility of the pair’s relationship and even predicts its end – the titular Duke of Burgundy being a butterfly found in the UK, whose numbers are in sharp decline. Or maybe Cynthia and Evelyn’s partnership is simply changing; in a kind of chrysalis state, waiting to emerge as something new and different.

The film’s wilful strangeness shouldn’t disguise the fact it’s also very funny. Knudsen – a comedy veteran in her native Denmark – and D’anna are actually an entirely believable couple and much of the humour springs from the nuances and niggles of their relationship. There’s a great moment when Cynthia accuses Evelyn of cleaning another woman’s leather boots that cleverly and amusingly subverts every on-screen row about unfaithfulness you’ve ever seen.

Further, British director Strickland’s third movie is a very seductive one and not just because of its sexual content. Images, scenes and lines continue to flit about your head for days after you first see it (perhaps that’s where the lepidoptery motif comes in). In fact, my memory of the film might now actually be better than the picture itself. I’m smiling just thinking about the non-sequitur sight of the mannequins in the lecture room, and the credit for the fictional perfume “Je Suis Gizella” at the start of the movie. There’s an element of joyful mucking about in play here that is hard to resist.

Some would dismiss the Duke of Burgundy – and Strickland’s films in general – as painfully pretentious and wilfully confusing, but they’re almost certainly the same sort of imbecile who walked out of Inherent Vice then boasted about it on Twitter. If you allow yourself to step over the threshold into Cynthia and Evelyn’s strange embrace you’ll quickly find yourself smitten. We can even agree a safe word if it all gets too much.

Rating: WWWW

The Duke of Burgundy is available now on VOD, and is also in select cinemas


WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthy
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful

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