At first, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) seems like a cruel and cold homeowner, who gets a certain kind of pleasure from torturing her maid Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). As the film goes on, however, it becomes clear that Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship is a lot more intimate, and the lines of power are not so clearly drawn.
Last week, Fifty Shades of Grey had the world in a tizzy for depicting a seemingly BDSM relationship on the big screen. Those who have seen Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film will know by now that Fifty Shades is less about BDSM than it is about talking, but Peter Strickland’s film, released in Irish cinemas this week, seems to be everything that last week’s blockbuster is not.
Both Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna are fantastic in their roles as the central couple; powers ebbs and flows between the two in an organic and natural manner. The chemistry between the two is fantastic and filled with trust, and they allow the story to unfold before the audiences’ eyes.
Writer / Director Peter Strickland has created a film about BDSM that contains no nudity, no men and no explicit behaviour on screen, that manages to be incredibly evocative and erotic, without casting judgement on the women at the centre of the film. In terms of story, there is not a huge amount going on here, The Duke of Burgundy is more an examination of the relationship between two women, than it is trying to get a point across. That said, however, the point made about power and control is an interesting one; as mentioned, the power ebbs and flows between the two women but the idea that the submissive partner is actually in control – and the way this is revealed on screen – is what becomes the truly interesting core at the centre of the film. There are times, however, where the use of butterflies as an analogy become a little heavy handed, and replaying scenes from different points of view ceases to be an exploration and more an attempt to hammer the idea of shifting power home.
Nicholas D. Knowland’s beautiful cinematography moves the film to new heights; focusing the female gaze on a female face underscores the fact that there are no male influences in the film, and every moment is made to look rich and luscious. Set Decoration by Zsuzsa Mihalek, and Andrea Flesch’s costume design fill the film with colour and beauty, and help to move The Duke of Burgundy away from potentially being a seedy film about – shock horror! – lesbians, and allows it to become a beautiful film that explores sexuality, without ever resorting to nudity or vulgarity… At least not on screen, anyway.
In all, The Duke of Burgundy is a beautifully shot, visually sumptuous film about the flow of power and control between two women in a sexual relationship. Peter Strickland and is cast have made a truly engaging and erotic film that is worlds away from its mainstream counterpart.