A kind of Fifty Shades for the arthouse crowd, Duke of Burgundy is Peter Strickland’s follow-up to the much acclaimed Berberian Sound Studio, which I didn’t enjoy at all, frankly. So although this wasn’t top of my list of films to see, word of mouth at the festival was so good that I found a sneaky ticket at the last minute. It was a wise decision, this is a beautiful, strange and melancholy film that is so stylish it credits a perfumier in the opening credits.
The Duke of Burgundy introduces us to a world that’s sort of but not quite the 70s (the opening titles are full on 70s pastiche) and where men seem to have become obsolete. We only see a small part of this world though, so there could be a whole rugby club round the corner with the scent of Je Suis Gizelle in their nostrils.
It’s summer, and everything is beautifully hazy. When Evelyn (Chiara d’Anna) rides in on a bicycle, her hair blowing in the sultry breeze, there’s such a retro vibe that I kept expecting someone to shout out ‘is she or isn’t she?‘. She’s on her way to work as a maid for her rich mistress, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Cynthia is a lepidopterist – try saying lesbian lepidopterist after a couple of gins – and her house is filled with beautiful specimens, pinned into frames. It probably takes a lot of dusting.
Evelyn isn’t a particularly good maid, and Cynthia has a range of punishments lined up for the frequent times when her delicate undergarments haven’t been washed to her satisfaction. This ranges from a bit of light whippage to the rather full on human toilet, with the hapless maid a bit too keen to submit to her mistress’s demands.
Expertly portrayed by d’Anna and Knudsen, Evelyn and Cynthia are embroiled in more than just a bit of kinky stuff, and it’s how that is slowly revealed that makes this such an engrossing watch. Much of the darkness – and the warm humour – of The Duke of Burgundy comes from the shifting power balance between the two women; the focus here is on how far you’re willing to go for the person you love, and how much of yourself you can give up for them.
Visually stunning, emotionally compelling and utterly enchanting as well as managing to be sensuous rather than titillating, this is masterful work from Strickland.