On the surface, Peter Strickland’s third outing is a highbrow antidote to Fifty Shades fever, featuring lesbians, moths, and awe-inspiring cinematography. Two European butterfly specialists, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), carry out a sadomasochistic relationship in their spacious mansion (courtesy of a wonderful location shoot in Hungary), with the former acting in the role of the dominant and the latter as the submissive. Continuing on from the excellent Berberian Sound Studio, Strickland again imagines a nonsensical universe and then commits to following its logic, mining real emotion from the otherworldly, eventually leading to sensory overload and to searing catharsis.
Shortly after the opening sequence, The Duke of Burgundy steps away from being an art-house remake of Secretary and instead focuses upon the interchangeability of the terms ‘sadism’ and ‘masochism’. Evelyn almost refuses to hear anything gentle or positive from Cynthia, instead demanding a full commitment to their roleplay: “Try to have a bit more conviction in your voice next time,” she advises after some unenthusiastic mean-talk. Though Evelyn nominally plays the role of the submissive, the reality is that she maintains control within the relationship, and that her demands are creating dissonance between herself and Cynthia. At times, their interplay can be humorous – often owed to Strickland’s knack for dialogue – but the movie nevertheless guides the relationship through several gruelling avenues, culminating in a devastating and heartbreaking climax.
In moments where Cynthia’s sadism appears to be less determined by roleplay and more emotionally driven, the film ponders whether sadomasochism can be an expression of love, or whether love is a form of sadomasochism. Evelyn eventually becomes irritated that Cynthia continuously needs to be prompted before assuming the role of the dominant, and their experiences become emptier as their falseness is reiterated. The couple’s encroaching downfall is permitted by a lack of chemistry, and their expectations have to be vocalised before each is even aware of what the other desires. In this, The Duke of Burgundy provides various broad insights into the wider nature of love, and posits relationships as forms of roleplay altogether.
Essentially, it’s a movie about the desperation to be loved and to be comfortable, especially in the face of aging. Cynthia’s anxiety increases along with her lover’s material greed, and the film tests the limits of how far she will go to maintain a happy balance. With The Duke of Burgundy, Strickland retains his deviant approach to genre, although where Berberian Sound Studio primarily utilised sound in exploring the layers of horror, Burgundy is an exquisite visual experience, and an insight into what the writer-director argues as the follies of romance. Similarly, where Berberian poked holes at the giallo in particular, Strickland here turns his focus to the European sexploitation picture, undermining the trashiness it has been historically blasted for, and creating an utterly beautiful movie that is saturated in classy eroticism with a strong, burning heart.