The Duke of Burgundy
(2014; dir. Peter Strickland)—Although I missed Strickland’s smooth, golden-toned Eurotrash homage-cum-S&M romance during its extremely limited theatrical run last spring, I resolved to keep half an eye open if it ever resurfaced. In the meantime I gritted my teeth through some disappointing late-night Cinemax fare and refused to watch Fifty Shades of Gray
as a matter of general principle. But now that Strickland’s third feature is finally available to purchase or watch via streaming video, I’m glad I waited.
Strickland’s puzzling previous film, 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio
, followed a distressed and repressed English sound-effects man (Tobey Jones) who traveled to Italy and was eventually driven mad by (and/or possibly sucked into) a rough cut of the low-budget horror picture he was hired to work on. This crazy premise worked better than expected because Jones’ careful performance and Strickland’s studious recreation of 1970s-era post-production facilities gave the film’s avant-garde autodestruct climax some necessary and appropriate social and psychological context.
In spite of its risqué subject matter, The Duke of Burgundy
is an altogether gentler and more compassionate film. It’s considerably less confrontational in its sound/image experimentation, and it’s more attuned to its characters’ delicate emotional states. It better be, too, because there isn’t much plot to worry about. Mostly we eavesdrop on some crucial scenes from the romance between fortysomething Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and twentysomething Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), a pair of lepidopterists whose emotional and romantic needs involve hand-washing expensive lingerie, carefully scripting multiple master-servant scenarios on high-class stationery, and locking people in wooden chests for the evening.
Sounds strange and sort of hot, doesn’t it? Well, not so fast. As these surprisingly tasteful sexual games continue, they start to resemble any one of a dozen regular routines and rituals around which most long-term relationships are organized. The exotic and complex articulation of Cynthia and Evelyn’s desires are slowly brought back to earth through hesitations, clarifying remarks (“Try to have more conviction in your voice next time”) and moments of off-book cruelty. What’s sold as a boundary-pushing piece of erotic transgression gradually transforms into something rarer and probably better: a story about two people trying to work it out.
Nevertheless, the film also deserves a merit badge for the way it turns on this wildly original line: “So had I ordered a human toilet, none of this would have happened?”