Director: Peter Strickland
MPAA Rating: NR
In director Peter Strickland’s last film, Berberian Sound Studio, he lovingly paid homage to Italian giallo films of the ’60s and ’70s but did so in a celebratory way, rather than simply mimicking their style. With The Duke of Burgundy he takes that same sentiment and applies it to the European sexploitation films of the same era, made popular by such filmmakers as Jess Franco. The end result is a gorgeous, decadent and strange fairy tale that sets the bar very high for cinema in 2015.
Though the title implies otherwise, this film features an all-female cast and revolves around two entomologists who carry out a very interesting sex life in between attending lectures on butterflies and moths. Cynthia, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, is the older of the two, and acts as the dominatrix for Evelyn, played by Chiara D’Anna. Seemingly every day, Evelyn gives Cynthia a script, and the two role play their relationship until the evening ends with a sexual climax.
They carry out their routine on a beautiful estate, lush with foliage and classic stone architecture, in a non-descript location in an unknown country. This mysterious fantasy land enhances the dream-like milieu of the film and helps keep everything open for interpretation.
The time period in which The Duke of Burgundy takes place is also an unknown. The visual aesthetic of the film is clearly influenced by European films of the ’60s and ’70s, so one could infer it takes place around this time. However, the time period seems irrelevant, considering the film takes place in its own little universe.
Like Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland takes the look and feel of a specific genre and eliminates the exploitative aspects. In Berberian, the film contained no graphic violence or blood, even though giallo films typically feature a lot of murder and carnage. In The Duke of Burgundy, he doesn’t show any nudity, despite the film being solely based around the sexual relationship of these two women. By taking these elements out of his films, it forces him and the viewer to focus on the characters and story instead of relying on cheap thrills.
Visually, this film is a feast for the eyes. Strickland and cinematographer, Nicholas D. Knowland, know exactly how to frame a shot and display just enough visual flair to convey style without appearing overly derivative. It’s the strongest element of the film. At times, Knowland heads into surreal territory, doubling up on or distorting the image by using a beveled mirror in front of the lens, which looks far better than adding the effect digitally in post. From the opening titles, I knew I was going to love the look of this movie, and I was not wrong.
Artfully sleazy, The Duke of Burgundy is a joyfully odd ride that may overstay its welcome with one too many false endings but will still certainly be one of the early highlights of 2015.