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New Release Review - The Duke of Burgundy

A lesbian couple struggle with their BDSM relationship.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Peter Strickland

Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D'Anna



After his Eastern European revenge thriller debut Katalin Varga, writer-director Peter Strickland really made movie fans sit up and take notice with his 2012 followup Berberian Sound Studio. A loving homage to the Italian 'Giallo' movement of the '70s, BBS was heavy on style but left many viewers wishing the film provided more substance beyond its retro facade. His latest film is being marketed as a similar throwback piece - again to the '70s - this time referencing the soft focus skin flicks of filmmakers like Jess Franco, David Hamilton and Damiano Damiani. With a jokey opening title sequence that credits a perfume designer (think about it...), it seems Strickland is set to deliver the obsessive cinephile version of a Zucker Brothers parody movie, but mere minutes into the film you realise he's selling himself and his latest work short. The Duke of Burgundy is far more than a polished genre pastiche; this is one of the best studies of a relationship to hit our screens in many a year.
To the sound of a '70s evoking theme tune by avant garde duo Cat's Eyes, we are introduced to Evelyn (D'Anna), an attractive twenty-something cycling gaily through the countryside of some unnamed European territory in some unidentified era (technology is notably absent from the film, with electricity barely present). She arrives at the lavish home of forty-something butterfly expert Cynthia (Knudsen), who immediately complains about her visitor's punctuality before inviting her into her lavishly decored home. Cynthia treats Evelyn like a personal slave, forcing her to perform a series of degrading chores, but it quickly becomes apparent it's all an elaborate game and the two women are lovers acting out a BDSM relationship. As the story progresses, we realise all is not as it initially seems with their off-kilter relationship.
Without straying into the realms of cheap cynicism, The Duke of Burgundy is bluntly honest about the strains of keeping a relationship fresh, and particularly nails the unique demands placed upon those involved in May to December romances. The elder partner, Cynthia, worries that she may not be able to please her young suitor's demanding sexual requirements and reluctantly goes along with her very specific wishes, while Evelyn is terrified that she may not fulfill her mature lover's intellectual needs, spending hours in a library brushing up on the subject of butterflies.
There are moments where it's impossible not to laugh, such as Evelyn's attempt to coerce Cynthia into purchasing a 'human toilet' for her upcoming birthday, but despite how ridiculous you might find the relationship practiced by these women, the film is successful in selling their affection for one another and you find yourself invested in wishing the couple to succeed. The protagonists of Strickland's tale may have a strange way of displaying their mutual love; nonetheless The Duke of Burgundy is one of those all too rare romantic dramas that can truly boast such a label. See it with your slave.




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