After hearing brief summations of what The Duke of Burgundy was about – a sadomasochistic lesbian relationship, I was a bit dubious. I've never got into supposed 'high-brow' erotic cinema. Maybe I'm just a prude, but I often struggle to separate 'arty' sexually explicit films with plain old pornography. I often find them quite shallow and too frequently their only goal seems to be to shock or titillate, which doesn't interest me (at least not in the context of sitting and watching a film).
However, I adored director Peter Strickland's previous film, Berberian Sound Studio, and this, his follow up, had been picking up praise all over the place, so I was still very keen to check it out. Thankfully my friends at Artificial Eye were generous enough to send me a Blu-Ray copy to review, so here are my thoughts on the film.
The Duke of Burgundy is set at an unknown time (the 70's by the looks of things) in an unknown European country and charts a difficult period in the sadomasochistic relationship between two women. Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) is the younger submissive partner and Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) plays the older dominant ice-queen of the relationship. Unfortunately, Cynthia isn't really turned on by the role-play. She only acts the part because she knows how much it excites Evelyn. Because Cynthia isn't really into the fetish, Evelyn has to write her a script to follow each day, which she does as effectively as she can. Over time it becomes too much to bear though and cracks start to form in the relationship.
I needn't have worried about this being another nicely shot porn film, as there's really nothing graphic here at all (I'm not sure you even see so much as a nipple) and instead the focus is on the characters and their love for each other. There are some effectively sensual scenes and you do see much of their masochistic practises, but the film plays on the repetitive and tedious nature of them rather than their sexuality or barbarity.
This is a vital element to the film and is what brings much of the humour to what is surprisingly more of a black comedy than a piece of erotic cinema. It's only subtly comic though, the relationship is taken seriously and forms the crux of the drama, but there is much sly fun to be had in showing how tedious a fetishistic relationship can be for someone not sexually gratified by it. I enjoyed how the supposedly submissive Evelyn was totally controlling everything too, through her notes and demands. When Cynthia actually goes against 'the script' on Evelyn's birthday, it fails miserably, making her queen-bitch persona too realistic for the younger woman to enjoy.
On top of the dark humour and fascinating subject matter, the film is beautifully stylish too. Berberian Sound Studio looked and sounded stunning, so I was very excited to see and hear what Strickland had in store next and he didn't disappoint. Where his previous film revelled in adopting the sound and imagery of Italian horror and giallo, The Duke of Burgundy takes its cue from erotic cinema from the 60's and 70's, such as the early work of Jess Franco. The cinematography has a seductive haze and vintage beauty to it and makes great use of mirrors and refraction using glass and plastic film. There are some unusual dream sequences too – in fact a lot of the film has a dream-like quality.
The moths and butterflies that appear in these scenes as well as heavily throughout the film (the title comes from a type of butterfly) give a key visual motif. The creatures are shown in lifeless monochrome diagrams or pinned into collections, not allowing their natural beauty to truly come alive, seemingly a metaphor for the central relationship.
The score is fantastic too. The indie group Cat's Eyes provide this, adopting a similar sound to the films Strickland riffs on in the visuals, whilst letting their own unique style infiltrate. It's gorgeous to listen to and sounds like nothing else released these days. I'm certainly going to be tracking a copy of this soundtrack down for my collection.
The only things that hold me back from giving The Duke of Burgundy full marks are, for one, that the film does seem a little slight. The subject matter is very interesting and certainly original (despite the visual references to earlier films), but it does feel a little like a one-trick pony at times. The film can feel a little distancing too, but this is largely down to Cynthia's struggle to deliver her 'lines' convincingly in their role-play as well as the hazy dream-like tone. Ultimately the relationship is very well handled though and it's easy to relate to Cynthia even if you've never had a masochistic thought in your life and the climax of the film is very effective because of this.
It's a wonderfully unique and intoxicating visual and aural treat. I could have stayed in that peculiar world for much longer than 100 minutes and the subtle humour gives the film an edge over other arty relationship dramas of this ilk. Highly recommended.
The Duke of Burgundy is out on now on Blu-Ray & DVD in the UK, released by Artificial Eye. I watched the Blu-Ray version and the picture and sound quality is excellent.
You get plenty of special features. There's a director's commentary as well as an interview with Strickland. He's an intelligent chap with a great knowledge of and passion for cinema, so it's a pleasure to hear him give his thoughts about the film and its production. He's quite modest too, mixing fairly in depth talk of the themes of the film with how Planes, Trains and Automobile's and Terry and June inspired certain scenes. He's a little uncomfortable in front of the camera during the interview, but he rarely pauses through the commentary, giving a healthy mix of thoughts concerning the content of the film and detailed information about its production.
There are loads of deleted scenes too, 45 minutes worth, all with detailed text introductions from Strickland. These are very honest about why they were cut and often quite amusing. One of Strickland's early short films, Conduct Phase, is included. This is an experimental look at the behaviour or wild dogs backed by very abstract music. You also get a Cat's Eyes music video with one of their tracks for the film. This is a bit cheap-looking and unusual, but will grab your attention with some shots that look to be from inside someone's vagina, only to be revealed to be the singer's throat at the end.
A very unusual extra feature is a set of Mole Cricket field notes for those of you interested in the insects frequently mentioned in the film. Finally you get the usual stills gallery and the obligatory trailer.