To start, it would perhaps be notable to point out that The Duke of Burgundy is not a BDSM film with lesbians. That is to say, though The Duke of Burgundy is a tale of two female lovers in a physical and emotional power-struggle, it cannot be reduced to such an apparently sensational sound-bite. Though the film is decidedly ‘queered’ by the contemporary film-goer, the story exists in a world where everything is female; a homogeneous fantasy world.
British director Peter Strickland returns after the ambitious but divisive Berberian Sound Studio (2012) with another tense drama which explores the dark side of human interaction and intimacy. The all-female cast is led by Sidse Babett Knudsen (you’ll know her from the excellent Borgen) and Berbarian Sound Studio’s Chiara D’Anna: they dominate every scene, slowly turning page after moth-eaten page in the saga of their relationship. Cynthia (Knudsen) is a butterfly professor (there’s a posh name for it probably) living in an ivy-entombed hideaway mansion, while Evelyn (D’Anna) is her maid, at the beck and call of Cynthia’s petulant whim. While Cynthia click-clacks around her library in ‘power-suits’, pencil-lined and precise, she belittles and directs a timid Evelyn. It soon becomes clear that the two women are fiercely entwined in a role-play which subverts our first meeting with these characters.
Shocking and strange, The Duke of Burgundy is a peep-hole view of a warped relationship which seems more preoccupied with the projection of love rather than love itself. It becomes more and more obvious that Evelyn’s sub-domination is what is keeping these two women together, for better or for worse. As Cynthia’s increasing suffocation (not the erotic kind) propels the film into a kaleidoscope of madness, cumulating in an extended sequence of butterfly mirages and strange hallucinogenic montages, reminiscent of the darker moments of Berberian Sound Studio.
The unfortunate shame of this film is that it will probably be best remembered in years to come as the lesbian ‘Fifty Shades’, especially when it makes the rounds on late night television. The triumph of The Duke of Burgundy however, is that it is so much more than that. From its crackly soundtrack by Cat’s Eyes (which, by the way, is bound to be the must-have film score on vinyl…or whatever your format of choice is), to the brave and daring performances by Knudsen and D’Anna, it deserves to become a landmark in erotic cinema. Even if you don’t find any of it remotely sexy.