Often films with an S&M theme revolve around how the slave gradually comes to manipulate the master, thus illustrating the co-dependent nature of such relationships. Peter Strickland’s The Duke Of Burgundy offers an interesting variation on this concept. Simply put, it asks: what if the master in a master/slave relationship didn’t really want to be the master? The resulting film works as an interesting meditation on the complexities of needs in a relationship, wrapped in a beautifully stylized tribute to days of Eurocult filmmaking gone by.
The Duke Of Burgundy is essentially a mood piece. Fittingly, its plot is quite simple: Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) is an entomology student who works as a maid for Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), an older professor who teaches at her school. Evelyn is treated like a slave by Cynthia and meekly submits to each indignity, be it professional or sexual.
Once the relationship rules are established, the film reveals the roles are not what they seem: Evelyn orchestrates her encounters as a slave, even writing dialogue for her master, and Cynthia quietly longs for less role-playing. Conflict arises and the two are forced to ponder how invested they really are in their roleplay as the story around them grows more surreal.
The simplicity of the storyline in The Duke Of Burgundy works for two reasons. The first is the impressive amount of style that Strickland invests the narrative with. He proved he was comfortable with reinterpreting the Eurocult film style of the ’70s for the modern arthouse era with Berberian Sound Studio and he carries his adventures in this area even further with this film. Using lush photography by Nic Knowland and a stunning chamber music/folk-pop score by Cat’s Eyes, the director transforms his Budapest locations into a landscape of antiquarian fetishism and roiling desires.
The stylization is fascinating – bug and nature imagery plays a big role and the school the women attend is a women-only place where everyone dresses out of time and mannequins can be dimly seen in the back rows of the lecture hall. In the second half of the film, Strickland pushes the envelope and creates some startling sequences that play like an unearthly but beguiling blend of David Lynch and Jesus Franco.
However, the performances are just as important to establishing The Duke Of Burgundy‘s captivating mood: D’Anna does a great job of creating an object of desire whose demanding nature is underpinned by a childlike fragility while Knudsen gives a subtly moving performance as a woman who is feeling doubts and fears that come with advancing age. Their slow-burn romantic troubles convince because Strickland gives them room to quietly develop their roles – and the conflicts and catharsis they experience in the film’s last half-hour have genuine emotional power that supplies a beating heart beneath the film’s artsy exterior.
In short, The Duke Of Burgundy succeeds both as Eurocult homage and a thoughtful, meditative addition to the legacy of S&M-themed films. It’s the rare indie that is worthwhile viewing for both the arthouse set and the cult movie fanbase.