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: