The Duke of Burgundy (UK-Hungary 2014)

Sidse Babett Knudsen as the 'mistress' Cynthia and Chiara D'Anna as Evelyn the 'maid'.

Sidse Babett Knudsen as the ‘mistress’ Cynthia and Chiara D’Anna as Evelyn the ‘maid’.

As Rona said after the screening: “This will divide audiences”. I agree but it’s interesting to conjecture why. On the one hand, the film’s references are very obscure if you are a) under 45, b) not interested in European exploitation films c) unaware of what happens in D/S relationships. On the other hand, most intelligent audiences will recognise that this film is a) beautifully made and b) a humanist love story. My hat is off to all concerned from writer/director Peter Strickland to the ‘human toilet consultant’ listed in the credits and everyone else in between.

It helps if you have seen Strickland’s two previous remarkable films, Katalin Varga and Berberian Sound Studio. The former was made in Hungary – and so is this new film. The latter was an attempt to explore the giallo, the Italian exploitation genre best-known in the UK via the 1970s works of Mario Bava and Dario Argento. The Duke of Burgundy riffs instead on the 1970s sexploitation films of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. If you don’t know these filmmakers I recommend Kim Newman’s Sight and Sound review.

‘The Duke of Burgundy’ is a (rare, English) butterfly and the study of insects is the only public activity in the strange community invented by Strickland – a community existing in a 1970s ‘mittel-Europe’ and made up solely of adult women. In this sense the relationships are not ‘lesbian’ as defined in majority heterosexual communities since all relationships are between women. The relationship at the centre of the narrative is between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). Fifty Shades of Grey has recently attracted huge audiences. I haven’t seen it, but from what I read in reviews, it doesn’t understand domination/submission in sexual relationships. The Duke of Burgundy gets it right. Evelyn the submissive is the real controller in this loving relationship and Cynthia tries to do what she asks until the ‘human condition’ becomes apparent and Cynthia develops a bad back. La bella Sidse proves to be a real trouper as Cynthia, wearing fetish gear that seems ugly to me but which supposedly does something for Evelyn. She has to appear as both the authority figure ‘dominant’ and the frump in comfy pyjamas and she does it movingly. Unfortunately, her English, though beautifully enunciated, occasionally has the wrong pitch or intonation. Where that worked for the Prime Minister of Denmark in Borgen, speaking English as part of international diplomacy, here only the slightest nuance is noticeable in the delicate soundscape. Perhaps it’s just me and I’m being hyper-critical?

In the UK the film has been given an 18 certificate and the BBFC ‘advice’ shown before the screening explains that this because of its ‘sexual fetish theme’. I can only assume that there is some kind of ‘health and safety’ warning implied here, perhaps concerning bondage. There is no explicit sexual activity on screen and ‘no nudity’. Despite what some reviewers imply, this is not an S&M relationship and the sexual ‘play’ is mostly off-screen. Does this mean the film isn’t erotic? Not really, much of the pleasure/arousal associated with D/S comes from the dialogue between the partners and the acting out of the assigned roles. I certainly found some scenes erotic. But the film is also very funny at times and raucous laughter emanated from the back of the cinema when some members of the audience clearly recognised the scenarios. It’s the humour that makes the film for me – or rather the delicate balance that Strickland and his collaborators achieve between eroticism, moments of humour, social observation and the emotional intensity of a genuine loving relationship.

The wonderful faux 1970s titles for the film.

The wonderful faux 1970s titles for the film.

It’s important to recognise the collaborators. Nic Knowland the cinematographer has vast experience, much of it in television and since he was working in the 1970s he certainly knows how to recreate the look. Several of the creative team have worked with Strickland before on Berberian Sound Studio and on international film and TV productions using Hungarian facilities. The music by Cat’s Eyes is excellent and evokes atmosphere well. Listen to extracts here. Overall, the look and ‘feel’ of the film reminded me of Nic Roeg’s work with a film like Don’t Look Now from 1973.

Peter Strickland’s films aren’t for everyone, but he is a unique talent to be nurtured and appreciated. Here’s a clip from The Duke of Burgundy:

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5 comments

  1. kieth1942

    I take exception to Roy’s ‘most intelligent audiences’. This is on a par with the sort of values often found among professional critics, assuming that their tastes correspond to some aesthetic standards.
    I am sure some audiences will enjoy this, but there are also problems of weaknesses that other audiences will note and which will affect their response.
    I was intrigued for the first half an hour and then I found the film increasingly repetitive. A friend thought the same. And it is not the subject but the treatment. One only has to think or them films by Jean-Claude Carriere and Luis Bunuel as a point of comparison.
    For a film that treats lesbian relationships and the question of dominance I much prefer Appropriate Behaviour (USA 2014). This film for me has the humour and emotion that were undeveloped in Duke of Burgundy.
    And I have increasing reservations regarding Peter Strickland. He does have a certain command of technique and does offer intriguing stories. However it is difficult to discern either a consistent pattern of style or themes in his films. I also wonder why his films are always set in Europe and not one in the UK?
    Of course you do not need to be an auteur to make good films. But then you need need talented and strong collaborators. There is a contemporary tendency, bought on by an excess of the autuer ideas, for directors to be their own scriptwriters [and often other crafts] and in many cases it does not work.
    I to was puzzled by the certification, it is a decidedly unsexy film. But then the contemporary BBFC is a rather odd institution.

    • Roy Stafford

      I think this misreads my statement which I tried to articulate carefully, but perhaps I didn’t succeed. My suggestion was that despite not getting many of the references most audiences could still discern the love story and the technical qualities of the filmmaking. Whether that means that they would (or should) like the film is a different matter. I don’t assume that what I like is what others should like. I meant ‘intelligent’ to refer to the skills of seeing through the various ‘plays’ with genre conventions.

      Re Strickland’s approach to scriptwriting, that’s a fair point and I wrote something similar in my post on Berberian Sound Studio. I think he puts more into the style and play with genre than he does with narrative development.

      I’m a bit baffled by Keith’s question about why Strickland doesn’t set his films in England since he’s clearly most interested in stories and genres that have specific local settings in Southern and Eastern Europe. He uses several UK collaborators and there is enough UK involvement to get BFI support. In a Sight & Sound interview (March 2015) he tells us that he is half Greek and that when he was left a small inheritance he decided to travel in Europe. I wish more UK directors were interested in European stories and European film culture.

  2. Rona

    I think the film does reveal a problem – engaging with the idea of ‘intelligent audiences’ – by the way the film demands you to ‘know’ about certain contexts and conditions to ‘appreciate’ it. Your reference at the time, Roy, of ‘Daughters of Darkness’ (1971) was very useful to me – Delphine Seyrig in an original erotic drama which, if you are fortunate enough to remember the 1970s, is a very familiar kind of aesthetic in films. The opening sequence and its overtly sexual content is a reminder that – depending on your view – things have become far more acceptable/sophisticated or more bland/unerotic.

    I do think that Strickland’s film has set itself a most difficult task of narrating a love story in unusual circumstances and in referencing those films of the 1970s, with at least a partial agenda of trying to make them very unsexy. Strickland certainly mines some brilliant insight out of that contradiction – it must really tiresome, one imagines, to be lacing up your S&M gear when you’ve got chronic backache. The ordinary in an extraordinary situation did successfully feed the absurdist humour, but how soon did any cinema audience – sophisticated and otherwise – start to be told they could join in with the joke? It is contained entirely in the script and the performances which never ‘winked’ to camera (rightly – but it does leave audiences a bit stranded perhaps). However, there’s a huge difference for me between this and the claustrophobia that ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ managed to create, the sensation you were or were not within a single person’s consciousness and experiencing their particular paranoia (and which I felt this film was trying for at times). ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ was an accomplished and intelligent and beautiful film but it left you potentially cold as an audience member. If I can compare it to a possibly inappropriate model in Steven Soderbegh’s ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’ (1989) – which is another film all about sex which is decidedly unsexy – that film does provide its audience with clear jokes/ironies and a revelation. Graham (James Spader), its celibate protagonist does climatically (all puns intended) tell Ann (Andie MacDowell) that he has arranged his whole life so that ‘this’ moment does not happen – the one where he loses control and has to feel something for another human being. The film has been quietly evolving into an unconventional love story and a conventional one of rebirth. Strickland, I think, aims for something of the cyclical nature of long-term love and therefore avoids great climactic revelations in the narrative – instead structuring it as a cycle of life for these characters where nothing will change. In fact, within this structure, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) does appear to assume her role again to perpetuate a relationship she needs but the film does rely on its audience to interpret this from her superficial actions – just as it has relied on their interpretation throughout. Who could criticise Strickland – it’s a brilliant premise to begin with and beautifully executed film cinematographically from where we sit in the audience – but he does make me appreciate what Nicolas Roeg brought to his films. I haven’t, yet, gone back to ‘Don’t Look Now’ and the famous scene in which Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland make love – for (we assume) the first time in a long time. There was a film team that could devise and execute an arrangement of shots and editing that convey a relationship, a desire between two people and their complex love for each other.

  3. Sam broadhead

    I simply adored this film. I love the idea of a room of women all attentive to the nuances of some obscure butterfly’s anatomy! The beginning scenes made me think of The killing of Sister George (1964), with Evelyn riding her bike in the cape. I enjoyed watching the story unravel , I also thought the repetition was interesting; by the end I finally understood why Cynthia was drinking the water before Evelyn arrives to do her maid’s duties. I thought the birthday cake scene was complex; was Evelyn crying because she was happy or because the game had gone too far? Although I was seduced by the colour, music, subject matter and the genre references to Italian film, I still wondered why lesbian relationships are often represented in terms of submissiveness and dominance? Still I think this will be one of my guilty pleasures. I look forward to seeing what the director does next.

  4. keith1942

    So, I don’t think the question is a ‘misreading’: ‘intelligent’ is a misnomer. The point appears to be that audiences who have aesthetic discrimination will engage in a way that others may not. This is not down to intelligence, but experience and education in a broad sense. We seem to be in the territory of Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘aesthetic disposition’.
    I certainly agree with many of Rona’s comments on the film.
    As for the question of the UK. I noticed that Strickland has UK colleagues and funding. What slightly puzzled me was his apparent lack of interest in the culture. The closest we get is in Berberian Sound Studio and that is a very eccentric example of ‘Britishness’.
    Looking over his three films I am reminded of Carlos Reygadas. Both directors seem interested in revisiting, maybe paying homage, to certain genres and filmmakers. That can be very interesting. I thought that The Great Beauty was a really interesting revisiting of Fellini: but I do not find either Strickland or Reygadas as effective.

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