Published Sep 17, 2014Frivolous and fetishistic, British director Peter Strickland's third full-length feature, The Duke of Burgundy, is a feast for the senses.
Set in an undisclosed part of the European countryside, The Duke of Burgundy concerns two lovers, Cynthia (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (relative newcomer Chiara D'Anna). Cynthia is a wealthy older woman who has seemingly made her fortune studying insects, while Evelyn is her downtrodden maid. At the film's beginning, the two begin an unlikely love affair centered on power and pain, with Cynthia dominating and punishing Evelyn at almost every occasion (save for a few snuggles here and there). But as their unconventional relationship spirals out of control, Evelyn's obsession with ritualized sado-masochism starts to tear them apart, as it becomes evident that Cynthia would much rather stay at home and study specimens in her pyjamas than help create some kind of human toilet (a focal point of the film) to take their romance one step further.
Much like Strickland's previous feature, 2012's out-there horror Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy is more concerned with sights and sounds than creating a coherent narrative; it's the experience of watching the film, rather than the story, that matters most. (This is evident first and foremost in the opening credits, which not only lists the film's dress and lingerie designer, but in a nod to Audrey Hepburn's Paris When it Sizzles, mentions the production's perfume of choice as well.)
Much of the film feels like a colour-corrected fantasy, with soft shots of the autumnal setting and plush interiors inviting viewers inside Strickland's mind at even the most inhibited points of the picture. Adding to that is a whimsical and sensual score from UK power combo Cat's Eyes (i.e. the Horrors' Faris Badwan and Canadian soprano Rachel Zeffira), who employ the use of heavily-processed woodwinds and other classical instrumentation to help create not only one of the more sumptuous cinematic experiences in recent years, but one of the best soundtracks, as well.
A sexy and stylized story that shows the ways in which couples compromise their beliefs for one another, The Duke of Burgundy is a welcome (albeit jarring) addition to the award-winning director's oeuvre. (Mongrel Media)