I love Peter Strickland. He's a true auteur in British cinema. His films may be seen as ostensibly pastiche works of others - in Berberian Sound Studio it was Italian Giallo horror of the '60s and '70s, in The Duke of Burgundy's case it is European softcore pornography of the same period - but his style is very unique and distinctive and he cleverly turns the genre he is affectionately recreating onto its head.
The Duke of Burgundy is an S&M love story – a world away from the stupid nonsense of Fifty Shades Of Grey which was released just one week earlier than Strickland's more impressive, intelligent offering. The setting is a rural sun dappled area of an unidentified European country, in an unspecified time (possibly the '70s) where a young domestic named Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) reports to the sprawling mansion of the cold and commanding Cynthia (Borgen star Sidse Babett Knudsen). As Evelyn demurely sets about her work it becomes clear that nothing is good enough for the unfeeling Cynthia, whose instructions become more and more intimate and erotic as the day progresses culminating in her urinating into Evelyn's mouth as a punishment off-screen.
I really admire how subtle Strickland actually keeps the erotica. It's an intelligent film and that's where its real seductive, sensual power actually lies. There is no nudity, just a lingering focus on lingerie (with Babett Knudsen's lush bottom, once playfully mocked for its growing size in Borgen, shot desirably from the POV of Evelyn's secretive desiring gaze) and it's also surprisingly tender for a film about sadomasochism. It's also very playful and tremendously witty too in a dark, droll way, especially in the bickering between the pair when they are out of character; Evelyn complains often that Cynthia isn't imperious enough, in a 'try harder next time' tone. Whilst Cynthia, weary from the day's sex-games, wants nothing more than to succumb to her all too deep sleep in her comfortable jimjams.
But there's also clear pain to be felt here in these interludes after the games and the safe words have been uttered. It's easy to empathise with the heartache Cynthia has, exhausted from the loving indulgence she has towards her demanding partner. It's there for us to see in her glazed eyes, in her drinking and her stumbling over the lines Evelyn has wrote for her and expects her to say, day in and day out. She just wants to do everything for her, to keep her happy and to keep her, even though it's clear that Evelyn's desires are all too often beyond her ken.
Stylistically, The Duke of Burgundy is a joy to behold. Cinematographer Nic Knowland's sun dappled photgraphy and the soft focus hazy blurs recall the very films Strickland is emulating as well as memorable fashion photography and advertising of the day. The mock-chamber, rather bucolic score from Cat's Eyes is also just right.
Stephen Frears once related the tale of his friend and fellow director, the late great Alan Clarke, coming up to him after the LA premiere of his film Dangerous Liaisons. "Great," Frears recalls Clarke as saying, "It's a three-erection movie" You could argue that Strickland has perhaps done the same here, but to dismiss this simply as erotica - even just a pastiche of erotica - would be missing much of its intentions.