If only there were more filmmakers like Peter Strickland. While other directors pander to the masses through convention, he is an artist with a gift for subversion. A man fused with a passion for experimentation and rebellion on the big screen, whose rich command of unorthodox methods makes him one of the great pioneers of contemporary art house cinema. Even when his ideas border on the intolerable (Barbarian Sound Studio), it’s impossible not to be seduced by the ambition of this assured auteur.
The Duke Of Burgundy, Strickland’s third feature, is arguably his most accomplished to date. His daring attitude towards filmmaking can be seen in the title alone. Don’t be fooled by it, this is not a story of British nobles sloshed out of their minds on vintage Chablis (although that would be a great film to see him make). It is instead something far more forceful.
Once more taking the reins as both writer and director, Strickland plunges us into a timeless world of uncertain location that’s steeped with the low-lit gothic allure of a Jess Franco picture. Here we are immersed within the sado-masochistic relationship of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). First impressions lead us to believe that Cynthia is the one in control, but as Strickland slowly begins to peel off and peek underneath the lingerie, we discover Evelyn to be the one pulling all of the strings. But are her ritual role-plays designed to benefit both herself and her lover, or is she only interested in satisfying her own cravings?
Lacing DoP Nicholas D. Knowland’s hypnotic images on top of each other and juxtaposing them with Cat’s Eyes hallucinogenic score, Strickland crafts a kaleidoscopic reflection of domination and desire. As a sensory experience, it’s an intoxicating one that channels the atmosphere of the 70s exploitation flick. The various scenes of erotica sizzle with the heat of a relationship built on fire, ferocity, and a yearning to fulfil.
Strickland’s film is not a hollow tale of bare bums and bondage. Pull back the covers and The Duke Of Burgundy reveals itself to be an important study of power and sexual-politics within all relationships. Through the passion and personal persecutions of Cynthia and Evelyn, the director weaves a poignant parable that observes the pain and sacrifice we must all make for the sake of companionship.
Throughout, the film focuses entirely on its central couple. Both D’Anna and Knudsen are integral to the film’s thematic command. Evelyn initially radiates the persona of a subordinate who’s desperate to please. However, as we learn more about the intricacies of her love life with Cynthia, D’Anna reveals Evelyn as the one who is eager to be satisfied. It is Cynthia who predominantly drives the film’s emotive undercurrent. Knudsen subtlety controls the sensations of the audience throughout; her need to be loved and looked after, even if it comes at the expense of her true happiness, is devastating to witness, haunting to remember, and impossible to forget.
From the first picturesque shot to its lingering final image, The Duke Of Burgundy acts as the perfect fusion of Strickland’s superb talents, proving him to be a man of great vision. He underpins the whole film with a wickedly humorous beat that instils various scenes with a brilliantly bizarre tone. For example: there’s intermitted suggestions that Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship would be strengthened if they were to purchase a human toilet.
There are also, however, moments when Strickland’s creative hunger gets the better of him. A subplot involving Cynthia’s fascination with lepidoptery is a notably isolating addition. But it speaks volumes as to the affecting power of Strickland’s work that, even at its most detaching, The Duke Of Burgundy is impossible not to submit to.