Even though its immersive imagery overshadows its characters, The Duke of Burgundy is one of the best films of the decade thanks to stellar performances, captivating cinematography, clever sound editing, well-executed story, and a deft hand by Peter Strickland.
Day after day, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) act out a simple yet provocative ritual that ends with Evelyn’s punishment and pleasure. As Cynthia yearns for a more conventional relationship, Evelyn’s obsession with erotica quickly becomes an addiction that may push the relationship to a breaking point.
The Duke of Burgundy is one of those rare films that are able to handle provocative subjects without being a gratuitous skin flick, bait and switch tease or shock schlocker.
The cinematography, production design, and sound editing does a great job at pulling you into the world of a BDSM relationship between two women. Wide angle lens capture the beauty of a rural region somewhere in Europe. Detailed production design brings a sophisticated household to life. Reflections and dim lights create sensual intimate moments. Heightened sounds add more dimensions to a simple yet provocative BDSM act. The stylized metaphor is memorable.
All of this makes an audio-visual experience where the ordinary becomes a captivating contrast with the unconventional. Simple cues like popping soap bubbles, trickling water (which by the way is not from the tap), and the sound of pacing heels against a carpet takes on a whole new meaning once you find out what’s really happening. The flashes of moths pinned down underneath a glass frame becomes a sad reminder of a love story.
Fortunately, the movie doesn’t lose sight of the story despite all the sophisticated visuals. The smart and well written plot gradually develops to reveal more about the relationship by relying on the dynamic of its characters instead of typical exposition. While everything is done with seriousness and poise (explicit action happens outside the frame) there’s also funny moments.
It’s not mentioned how long Cynthia and Evelyn’s erotic ritual has been going on, but it’s running out of steam. Cynthia wants a conventional relationship but Evelyn still yearns for the routine.
The leads deliver stellar performances to convey the breakdown of their dynamic. Sidse Babett Knudsen showed Cynthia’s growing restlessness and anguish without saying a word as the act of humiliation and pain becomes real. Chiara D’Anna was very convincing at portraying Evelyne’s duality that you wouldn’t see the plot twist coming your way. Fatma Mohamed plays a small but amusing role as a fetish carpenter.
The overall result is a transfixing erotica with an affecting love story. It’s the perfect antidote to Fifty Shades of Grey. On the other hand, the film piles on too much weird imagery that you don’t get to find out more about its two characters. You only get repetitive snippets of what they’re like outside of their BDSM relationship, such as lectures at an insect appreciation club with mannequins in the audience.
Obviously the movie isn’t for everyone, especially those who are expecting a quick kink fix. There’s no man here and the women are middle-aged.
But these flaws are minute. The Duke of Burgundy is a rewarding experience. It doesn’t exploit its subject. It’s not defined by the sexuality of its characters and doesn’t even point it out.
It’s a sensual yet smart, funny yet melancholic love story that will teach you what it really takes to love someone. Cynthia and Evelyn has pinned themselves to a ritual that hurts and binds them together, which is pretty much what a long relationship does to any couple. Even though they’re sexual proclivities are unusual, their story is universal. In any relationship, your needs will eventually change and a compromise must be reached.
My Rating: 9/10