A woman who studies butterflies and moths tests the limits of her relationship with her lover.
‘The Duke of Burgundy’, Peter Strickland’s follow up to ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ is a tantalising tale of sexual fetishism, drawing two deeply memorable performances from Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna. An antithesis to the commercial juggernaut that is ’50 Shades of Grey’, this film is a more sensual affair, focusing on the sadomasochistic relationship between Cynthia (Knudsen) and Evelyn (D’Anna), initially on the roleplaying between the two, before deepening its examination of sexual desire through the characters varying wants and needs. At the outset, Knudsen’s Cynthia appears dominant and strong, but as the layers are pulled back her vulnerabilities come to the fore, whereas Evelyn’s air of vulnerability feels like more of an act. The dual roles present an interesting contrast and throughout the course of the film the changing nature of this relationship creates many interesting possibilities.
For a film about sex and desire, there’s surprisingly little in the way of actual sex with the film a lot less explicit than one may have expected from the trailers (no nudity, for example). If anything, the lack of explicit action feels more like foreplay and the dance the characters do with one another is charged with sexual tension, as the camera lingers on small pieces of movement from each character. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether Strickland is paying homage to his influences or whether he’s satirising them with a wink, and this makes it difficult to fully invest the viewer in some of the darker themes that are hinted it, although it does allow for some lighter, humorous moments.
Strickland’s previous film, ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ was a stylish, twisted tribute to 70’s Italian horror films seen through the mind of Toby Jones sound engineer, and to an extent the issues I had with that film still linger here. ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ is also visually sumptuous and features a terrific use of sound, but it also struggles to find a narrative and to follow the themes it introduces to a natural conclusion. I had the same feeling from watching this film as the latter in that it feels as if Strickland is showing off his undoubted talents, without investing us into the story. I watched, and I enjoyed aspects on a technical level, but I felt like I was watching from a distance. There’s a very clinical feel to proceedings and I get more enjoyment out of art that draws me in emotionally, something which Strickland’s script never does despite the best efforts of the lead actresses.
‘The Duke of Burgundy’ is likely to satisfy fans of Strickland’s earlier works, with its arthouse stylings and unusual subject matter serving up a visual treat. For casual fans or those yet to be drawn into his world, this film is often a frustrating affair that introduces several intriguing ideas that promise more interesting developments than we ultimately get.
Directed By: Peter Strickland
Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna