Since putting his name on the map with surreal horror piece Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Strickland has been a busy guy. Having directed one of the most evocative and beautiful music tours in Björk: Biophilia Live, he returns with The Duke of Burgundy. It is easy to say that this is a singular masterpiece; one for the ages, which will be used in years to come as an example of a filmmaker at the top of their craft. He understands the intrinsic meaning of film and his manipulation of image and sound is likely to compete with the great masters of contemporary cinema. Not since David Lynch has surrealism looks so beautiful, so erotic and so very compelling.
In a time where sex sells and where Fifty Shades of Grey has taken over the cinema box office, it warrants a film like The Duke of Burgundy to show how sex is done. Possibly one of the most erotic and sensual pictures in decades, there is virtually no nudity, nothing gratuitous and nothing done for titillations sake but through the delicately defined composition of the picture, the way that the camera moves across the screen and the incredible performances from both female leads as well as the unusual and powerful story, The Duke of Burgundy certainly wins in the passion department.
Cynthia (the stunningly beautiful and seductive Sidse Babett Knudsen) is the dominant one; she the lady of the house, in the heels, with her hair in a bun. Evelyn (the powerful and capturing Chiara D’Anna) is the submissive one; on her knees, locked away, quiet and cautious. A fascinating and alluring power play between these two women grasps the audiences attention from the very opening scenes as Evelyn rushes through the village on her bike to Cynthia’s house, where she spends her days cleaning. Initially the attention to phallic images is fascinating, as Evelyn grasps hold of whatever she can get hands on, whilst being poorly treated by her ‘boss’. She is told she cannot sit down, to clean quickly, massage Cynthia’s feet, hand wash her panties and when she gets something wrong, she has to be punished.
Soon Strickland unveils another layer of the story; the way he peels back to bring the audience deeper and make them more complicit in the lives of the characters is just as powerful as anything shown on screen. He structurally bewitches the audience, changing their expectations and assumptions as the film goes on. Whilst the boss and cleaner act holds initially, he soon reveals that the two are lovers in a BDSM relationship where Cynthia dominates her domain and Evelyn. She touches the girl intimately and expects the same in return; she punishes and provokes, forcing goosebumps on the skins of the audience.
But of course there is still one more layer to reveal as their lustful and touching relationship is actually all part of a plan carefully put together by Evelyn. Whilst she is the submissive one in their playing, she is actually in control of the wider picture. She provides the script, the actions, the punishments and allows her body to be taken completely by Cynthia, who actually finds the intensity of their verbal and physical matching a painful sight. Here is really the gem in Strickland’s story as he carefully looks to examine to limits of lovers in the relationship and who is really in control. Looking at The Duke of Burgundy in a slightly different way, this could be used as an illustration of Freud’s theory of the id, ego and superego, the three parts of the psychoanalytical personality. An interesting interplay through involving instant gratification and acknowledging ones needs alongside working out what reality actually is handing out to us.
Alongside this incredibly powerful story are dazzling, sensational visuals, which ensure the audience are drawn into the world of the characters (the film is set at an unknown point in time, in an unknown part of the world). The almost dreamlike state of everything in this world allows Strickland a space to explore the fantasy, delving deep into the psyche of the characters and illustrating their innermost thoughts. This is wonderfully shown during one of the dream sequences; the camera dives into the void and the shadows of Cynthia’s vagina, presenting a mixture of dream and nightmare; good and evil, light and dark until it all becomes too consuming and intense for her. The same can be said of the music of the film; provided by Cat’s Eyes’, the fabulousness of the voices, the strings and the percussion adds an integral layer of meaning to the film.
Steeped an an immense and strong film history; seemingly effortless and fabulously cool, The Duke of Burgundy is an astounding achievement in filmmaking.