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Review: The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

Directed by: Peter Strickland

Premise: A pair of lesbian lovers (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna) live in the country and study butterflies. They engage in BDSM role-play but the subordinate woman’s craving for humiliation strains their relationship.

What Works: In the 1970s, filmmakers attempted to tell stories about erotic awakenings and sexual realities that was distinct from pornography. This movement was mostly an artistic cul-de-sac; it didn’t lead to an embrace of sexuality by mainstream cinema but it did result in some interesting films like Last Tango in Paris, Carnal Knowledge, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask. The 2014 film The Duke of Burgundy is clearly influenced by that period of moviemaking and it harkens back to the films of that era. The opening credits have a retro style and the story appears to take place in an analog time although the specific decade is never made clear. The Duke of Burgundy is wonderfully shot with vibrant colors. Although it was captured with digital cameras, the filmmakers appear to have used filters and lighting in a way that is reminiscent of 1970s celluloid and the imagery picks up on the sensual detail. While the visual style recalls an earlier era, The Duke of Burgundy has contemporary sexual politics in mind. The Duke of Burgundy is the story of two lepidopterologists who live an isolated life in the countryside where they study butterflies while acting out their BDSM fantasies. When mainstream movies depict lesbianism it is frequently presented in a way that is exploitative or performative to heterosexual male desires. That’s not the case in The Duke of Burgundy. The film is seething with passion and eroticism but it’s on these characters’ terms and the movie does that while being tasteful. Filmmaker Peter Strickland is very precise about the way he frames the action, teasing the audience but also capturing subtle details in the characters’ reactions. The story of The Duke of Burgundy is a complicated one. The film smartly reveals the power dynamics of the relationship. The opening of the story leads us to believe that Evelyn, played by Chiara D’Anna, is in an abusive relationship with Cynthia, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen. But the story gradually reveals that Evelyn is actually in control of the relationship, creating humiliating scenarios her herself, and Cynthia is troubled by the way her better half wants to be treated. This film presents sexuality and power in a way that is complex and intelligent and the performances by the actors play out the subtleties in ways that are unapologetically erotic but also connect the sexuality to other aspects of their characters.

What Doesn’t: When the movies portray BDSM relationships it is usually in an unhealthy or dysfunctional context. That’s most evident in films like Fifty Shades of Grey but even better titles like Secretary still present characters who are damaged or unhealthily obsessive. The BDSM relationship of The Duke of Burgundy is more realistic and more complex than most cinematic portrayals but it is still cast as somewhat dysfunctional. However, stories need tension; a tale about a relationship in which everything was healthy and nothing was going wrong would not be interesting. All love stories, whether it is gay BDSM or vanilla heterosexuality, need a disruption to create the conflict necessary for drama. The Duke of Burgundy does that but the conflict in the relationship isn’t as obvious as it is in most cinematic love stories. The movie is highly stylized and at times it treads into abstraction. This film is going to be puzzling to some viewers, and not because of their sexual tastes, but because of the avant-garde and ambiguous ways in which the action plays out.

DVD extras: Commentary track, interviews, deleted scenes, music, and a short film.

Bottom Line: The Duke of Burgundy is a love story that is both smart and sensual. The film explores the intersection of desire, obsession, power, and sexuality in ways that are beguiling and challenging. This is the movie that Fifty Shades of Grey wanted to be.

Episode: #635 (February 19, 2017)