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Review: 'The Duke of Burgundy' is a lush study of filmmaking, love

What appears to be a pastiche of European '70s sex movies becomes a trenchant and amusing study of relationships.

‘The Duke of Burgundy’
Director:
Peter Strickland
Stars: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna
Rating: NR
5 (out of 5) Globes

You could be an expert on the films being paid homage in “The Duke of Burgundy” — namely Eurotrash sex films of the 1970s — and still be deeply perplexed by what it is. And what is it? It’s both a pastiche and a kind of deconstruction of the genre. But it’s not entirely either of those things. Instead, writer-director Peter Strickland — whose “Berberian Sound Studio” did something similar to another ’70s Euro-genre, the Italian ’giallos — is using this specific breed of film to comment on other things: on moviemaking, on relationships, on love. He’s also allowing viewers to bask in the basic act of enjoying impossibly lush imagery.

It’s not clear how Strickland arrived at this plot through sex films, but here it is. We observe two lady lovers: a prim, British entomologist, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who seems to delight in verbally admonishing and occasionally punishing her shy, vaguely European maid, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). (Knudsen’s spot-on tony accent is even more impressive when you realize she’s Danish.) But this is a facade as fake as the movie itself. In truth the two are playing roles: Evelyn gets off on being dominated while Cynthia, an actually quite loving partner, is merely playing a role. She too enjoys being dominated, in a way; if she’s even a hair too gentle with Evelyn, Evelyn will scold her back.

Strickland has said this is a metaphor for filmmaking, which would make sense: “Berberian Sound Studio” is a crafty depiction of the act of filmmaking, dwelling on sound design without ever actually showing the movie within the movie. But that’s only scraping at one of the film’s levels. The filmmaking aspect is less obvious here. You might not immediately catch that Cynthia is essentially being directed by Evelyn, following a script (stenciled on notecards) and sometimes told to inject more cruelty into her lines, even while the two are in engaged in the act.

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“The Duke of Burgundy” may be even headier, though, when read as a look at relationships. It uses the language of BDSM films to portray love as about performance. There is never any doubt of Cynthia and Evelyn’s love, even as they drift into jealousy in the second hour. But, the film says, even a healthy union requires some role-play, even sacrifices. Cynthia knows she has to put on a mask to please her partner.

And yet that doesn’t dilute their love. As she puts on proper clothes or drinks gallons upon gallons of water (for reasons left enjoyably obscure), you sense pain mixed with devotion — someone willing to do that which may be uncomfortable or simply undesirable simply to make her lover happy. It’s a viewpoint at once cynical and deeply, passionately romantic. (“Duke” can also be screamingly funny: Lovers’ tiffs include accusations of polishing a neighbor’s shoes, while at one point Evelyn says it would be nice if she wasn’t always the one who thought to lock her inside an ornate chest as ersatz punishment.)

This makes “The Duke of Burgundy” sound like an academic exercise. But like “Berberian Sound Studio” — which, despite being only two years old, is already a cinema studies school fixture — it’s also a most sensual experience. “Berberian” delighted in the sounds of a bygone era of analogue filmmaking: reels rapidly spinning, dials being loudly turned. “Burgundy” both sounds and looks like the films it lovingly imitates: all soft-focus photography, auburn hues, autumnal leaves, oval mirrors hung on green-splattered wallpaper. It’s about the sensuality of objects as much as its ideas, sometimes stopping the movie dead to pore over Cynthia’s impressive collection of dead butterflies. “The Duke of Burgundy” leaves plenty to think about, but it’d be just as rewarding to turn off your mind and let the sounds and images wash over you like lapping waves.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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