The Duke of Burgundy is constantly playing with power and perspective over the course of its runtime, and the two women at its core, Cynthia and Evelyn, are always never quite clear with whether or not they are playing the game or just getting worn down. The two women are in a relationship, but with a dynamic I’m not entirely sure many people can identify with. I can’t, but that doesn’t mean that their dance for power can’t be gripping. Cynthia gets to play the dominant role in the relationship, but as things unfold it becomes clear that maybe Cynthia doesn’t feel all that powerful at all.
The timeline on this film is often unclear and I think will play different upon repeat viewings, but I’m not entirely sure it will clear up anything really. Regardless, Peter Strickland’s direction will keep you spinning as it beautifully captures this almost surreal world that these two live in. Surrounded by insects for study, the house the two share has an eerie vibe and Strickland does a fine job of keeping us off balance by pairing much of the film with some rather upbeat music. The film is already a strong contender for one of the more exquisitely shot films of 2015 and that isn’t because it is technically the first one I have seen. Strickland’s camera captures some amazing shots with each one almost as beautiful as the next.
Strickland also wrote the script and it does a great job of showing the mental wear and tear this life is taking on Cynthia while lacing much of the film with a wicked sense of humor. I found myself laughing out loud throughout as Strickland finds humor in places you would never think possible. The structure of the film is also all part of the fun, as scenes start repeating and you have to watch for differences in the performance as you try to figure out if we are watching a previous scene again, viewing from a separate perspective, or if these two ladies just do the same thing over and over again. If the latter is the case, I can see why Cynthia feels the way she does, who knew BDSM could get so tedious.
Sidse Babett Knudsen stars as Cynthia and is quite spectacular in the role. Everytime she gets back into that “costume” you can feel it taking its toll on her, but she also always leaves you wondering if she is just playing the game as she tries to seize power in the relationship. Who knew the one in the dominant role could end up being so helpless. Chiara D’Anna is the perfect balance as Evelyn as she adorable navigates her needs from her dominant why dominating the relationship almost every step of the way. D’Anna’s softness disarms you, like I think it does Cynthia, and before you know it she is asking you to lock her in a closet and gets grumpy if you don’t. Both women display excellent comic timing, are extremely sensual without ever having to explicitly show off their bodies and we can feel the connection between the two bleeding through all of the troubles. Fatma Mohamed is also quite funny in a scene of consultation that must be seen unspoiled to be truly enjoyed.
A stray observation, there are no men in this film and I really wonder what the decision was behind that. There are mannequins attending a conference, but no men. Odd, perplexing and interesting.
The Duke of Burgundy is bound to perplex viewers, but those up for a bizarre and twisted romance should not miss out. Strickland’s technical skills are impressive and this has me really wanting to check out Berberian Sound Studio even more than I already had. The Duke of Burgundy is a hard film to define, but it is an easy film to get wrapped up in.