Peter Strickland, the director behind Katalin Varga and Berberian Sound Studio, is not someone known for making commercially friendly films. On its own terms, his latest effort, The Duke of Burgundy, appears to be no different. Telling a slow-burn, particularly European story of a lesbian couple fascinated by moths, it makes no bones about its arthouse ambitions. Yet, releasing just a week after the none-more-talked about 50 Shades of Grey, the fact that so much of Burgundy centres around a BDSM relationship (albeit one with very little in common with 50 Shades) should be enough to secure it a far wider reach than it may have otherwise had. Perfectly encapsulating the relationship between big and small films, and reiterating just why blockbusters are necessary for cinema to survive, this brilliant timing is nothing but a positive, as The Duke of Burgundy absolutely deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.
Despite the surface similarities, however, Burgundy and 50 Shades could hardly be more different in their portrayal of BDSM. Firstly, the world created here by Strickland is inhabited entirely by women (whether this is a commune or a world entirely without men is never fully explained, nor does it need to be), all of whom seem to be engaged in such relationships. Our leads are the dominant Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and the submissive Evelyn (Chiara d’Anna), and both actresses give great performances. Basically required to play two roles each, one of the ‘real’ character, and the other of their character within the elaborate sexual rituals, and speaking only English the entire time, they give a profoundly human heart to an otherwise slightly surreal world. A second massive difference, and one that is made more and more obvious as the film progresses, is that the submissive partner is actually the domineering one in the relationship. It’s a relatively simple twist, but allows the script to play with some subversive ideas, casting the submissive in an almost antagonistic light. Maybe demanding that your partner insult you and lock you in an ornate cabinet overnight is actually cruel, as expressed in a truly disconcerting dream sequence, a combination of tone and soundtrack that brought to mind the best moments of Under the Skin.
The brilliance of the score seeps into the entire film, but is overshadowed as a technical achievement by the lighting. Cinematographer Nicholas Knowland makes every shot gorgeous, and a huge amount of that is down to how beautifully everything is lit. Not only does this make The Duke of Burgundy a sumptuous visual experience, it also adds a touch of class to firmly separate it from its ‘70s European sexploitation inspirations – Strickland cites Jess Franco as a major influence. A further split comes with the fact that there is no explicit nudity at any moment, and the actual sex acts are generally kept behind closed doors. This is all about the ritual, and in keeping to this restriction, Strickland also offers a fascinating portrait of just how difficult long-term relationships of any kind can be. Even the most absurd kinks can become rote and tired, and there are obvious cracks between Cynthia and Evelyn, allowing for a quietly affecting exploration of a couple in crisis.
To enjoy the film, The Duke of Burgundy requires you to accept its world without too many queries. Ask where it is set, what kind of timeframe it takes place in, or why lectures about the precise differences between the patterns on moth wings fill entire auditoriums, and you’ll find no answers. For some this may prove frustrating, but if you just accept these oddities then you’ll find that the melting together of different days serves very effectively to highlight how constant routines can strain the patience of a relationship. The fascination with lepidoptery – the eponymous duke is actually a species of moth – whilst offering plenty of symbolic value, is also played for laughs. One sequence in which Strickland pans across a room full of people sit sincerely transfixed by the mating call of a specific moth subspecies is just one of a few disarmingly funny moments.
Whilst any description of The Duke of Burgundy would more than likely put off a mass audience and the weirdness occasionally goes overboard, it is engaging, funny, and tenderly human, all anchored by a particularly terrific performance from Knudsen. It explores a side of female sexuality that the majority of films would shy away from, and does so with grace and earnestness, a considerable achievement that makes Burgundy not only highly engaging, but also a genuinely important movie.