Directed by: Peter Strickland
Written by: Peter Strickland
Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna
(Originally written for Youtube Mar 13 2016)
The Duke of Burgundy is gorgeous from its very first shot, and continues to be throughout, almost self-consciously so, and I choose those words carefully. And indeed, The Duke of Burgundy does seem to check-off all the marks of a stereotypical art-y film: Long, carefully composed shots; ambiguously period aesthetic, European accents, and lesbians. And, aside from doing all of that artsy stuff really well, the movie also tells an intriguing story of power and relationships that’s sexy without ever being exploitative.
Our main character is Knudsen’s Cynthia, the dominant half of the film’s central relationship. Except, Cynthia isn’t a dom of her own choice, but acts like one for the sake of D’Anna’s aggressively submissive Evelyn; who writes out detailed instructions and scenarios for the couple to play out. The Duke of Burgundy explores this relationship through Cynthia’s perspective as she comes to terms with having to play a character in order to keep her lover interested, and also begins to worry about the age difference between her and the younger Evelyn.
This is a movie that chooses to explore this weird relationship dynamic over having much of a traditional plot, and does so largely through examination of the couple’s sexual habits. And despite never showing any sex, or even nudity, The Duke of Burgundy is one of the sexiest movies I’ve ever seen. The film is awash in silk stockings, corsets, and other tasteful negligee. How the two leads converse and play out Evelyn’s scenarios make it clear what about the dynamic Evelyn finds stimulating, even if the movie never shifts away from Cynthia’s discomfort with the rituals.
How the film plays with the relationship between dominant and submissive would be more than enough to make it one of the most mature explorations of non-typical relationships committed to film; but where the Duke really raises the bar is by making the experience feel universal. This isn’t a film just about Dom-Sub romance, but about the politics of any relationship, and the changes we make to ourselves in order to satisfy a person we have feelings for – about stripping away the layers of yourself to someone else and asking am I still good enough?
It helps that in the midst of the all the drama, The Duke of Burgundy doesn’t forget that relationships can also be fun, and there are a good number of really funny jokes sprinkled throughout the movie that take advantage of the lesbian dom-sub relationship being a great source of comedy.
It also needs to be said just how beautiful everything in this film is. Every outfit in the film perfectly balances sex and elegance, and feels appropriately period but never antiquated or costume-y. Its cliché, but every shot in this film really could be a painting, more specifically, and I hope I’m not completely wrong with this, but I want to say in the Rococo style? I felt the soundtrack leaned a bit too horror-movie at first, but it fits the further you get into the film and does a great job to heighten Cynthia’s discomfort.
And this is why I started this review by describing the film as self-consciously beautiful; because at its core is a woman doing her best to remain sexy for her partner. And through this highly stylized story of pretty extreme romance, The Duke of Burgundy presents one of the most interesting and universal looks at what it actually feels like to try and keep a relationship alive. And like any great partner, Duke is more than just a pretty face, it’s challenging, layered, and intriguing until the very end.