Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy is a well composed, dreamlike erotic drama. This retro-tinged film from 2014 is based on the European softcore porn films of the 1970s. Strickland gets the sumptuous visuals spot on, which makes The Duke Of Burgundy a feast on the eyes.
Strickland’s film delves deep into the desires of lesbian lovers Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). They’re a loving couple in a long-term relationship but their wants and needs are very different. Evelyn pushes their union to the limit with her yearning to be dominated by Cynthia at every opportunity.
The Duke of Burgundy is more of a pastiche than a homage to the erotic films that seeped from Europe in the 1970s. These films are what many refer to when they say that European cinema is filled with sex and nudity. The titillation in these films took precedence over their story and many overlook the real artistry behind their construction. Strickland embraces the ludicrous elements but understands the theme of desire woven into their structure. He’s more interested in mood than ‘muck’, peppering his film with luscious cinematography (by Nic Knowland) and a moody score courtesy of Cat’s Eyes. If you’re looking for gratuitous nudity then you might want to look elsewhere.
Nothing is what it seems in Strickland’s film. It’s set in an indeterminate time period, set in an unknown European location (although shot in Hungary) and features no male characters. Cynthia is a orthopterist at a university but there seems to be few people in her lectures (one slow camera pan revels mannequins making up numbers). It’s a dreamworld that doesn’t exist, a cinematic fantasy with it’s origins in a taboo-breaking sub-genre.
Strickland’s film is a feast on the eyes and ears but it’s lacking on a story level. The main plot kinks are untied in the first 30 or 40 minutes and this leaves narrative to meander without any real drive or emotional pay-off. It’s not unpleasant and everyone is committed to the story they’re telling but you are left wanting more. I understand that Strickland is following the blueprint to many films which are classed as having style over substance but he could have upped the ante and delivered a deeper story.
The Duke of Burgundy drips with wonderful details, scoring high on all technicals levels, whilst also maintaining well tuned performances from the two leads. The story may be lacking but there’s enough to recommend in Peter Strickland’s film to make it worth your time.