The Duke of Burgundy

Searching for fulfilment through fetishes, The Duke of Burgundy contemplates control as a puzzle and a game.
The Duke of Burgundy

Image: sff.org.au 

For Peter Strickland, control is everything, as the filmmaker demonstrates in his artful frames and penetrating sounds, and further explores in his incisive narratives. So overtly matching his imagery, acoustics and scripts may seem too easy a fit; however in the writer/director's hands, the pairing proves far from convenient or comfortable. In visuals, audio and story, he champions precision so that he can dissect it, his meticulous aesthetics, layered soundscapes and tightly wound scenarios established, dismantled and then reassembled. 

So it is that his latest and third feature, The Duke of Burgundy, begins with Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna, Berberian Sound Studio) reporting for another shift of servitude at the remote residence of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen, TV's Borgen). The former is given a specific set of household tasks, and warned by the latter of the punishments to follow should she fail to meet the requisite standards. When that proves the case, Cynthia's chiding becomes both physical and sexual. Far from overstepping the bounds of employment, their relationship is revealed as one of searching for fulfilment through fetishes, with the stern boss and inept subordinate roles in a pre-conceived ceremony the long-term lovers are acting out.

Indeed, Strickland crafts The Duke of Burgundy both as a puzzle and a game, with power and passion the playing pieces. As the central duo navigates their way forward, just who leads and who follows continues to change in sometimes tender, sometimes tense circumstances. That the older, adoring Cynthia, when she sheds her sadomasochistic confines, is an entomologist specialising in moths and butterflies – and seemingly teaching the younger, more clinical Evelyn to follow in her footsteps – says much about the film's consideration of the cycle of alteration and transformation. The observations drawn about romantic and domestic bonds in general may be blatant, but it is how they come about that captures attention: first, by expressing a fantasy in all its sensual glory, and then showing the stark reality behind it; second, by revelling in the filmmaker's favoured sources of cinema inspiration. 

Amusement may spring from Cynthia and Evelyn's interplay by sly design, yet a comedy, The Duke of Burgundy is not. Given that arrangements of submission and domination have already received a high profile – and accidentally laughable – outing in very recent movie history, it is refreshing to see Strickland fashion his deconstruction of authority and command as a loving homage to '70s European art cinema. As he proved with Berberian Sound Studio, the director is as much a master of appropriation and interpretation as he is of painstaking detail. Here, he embraces opulence and decadence as an expression of both freedom and of constriction, his underlying thematic dichotomy.

Cue quiet, lingering shots of the couple's elaborate surroundings, then cut to noisy incursions of fluttering insects, as the feature flows between the restrained and the uninhibited. Such fluidity also manifests in the lead performances, with D'Anna and Knudsen each exquisite in flitting between not only the obvious extremes of their characters, but in conveying the graduated variations in the middle. Never is their subtlety and flexibility more apparent than in the film's repeated refrain, the recurrence of the opening sequence. Strickland lets distinctive shades of the scene echo throughout The Duke of Burgundy's duration, making his movie an enthralling, entrancing 104-minute exercise in spotting the difference in relationship power plays and rituals of seduction – or, the ultimate big-screen act of control.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

The Duke of Burgundy

Director: Peter Strickland
UK, 2014, 104 mins

Sydney Film Festival
June 3 – 14, 2015

Revelation Perth International Film Festival
July 2 – 12, 2015

Queensland Film Festival
July 24 – 26, 2015

Sarah Ward

Wednesday 24 June, 2015

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay