On a beautiful autumn day, seemingly timid maid Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) arrives at the sprawling, imposing mansion where she performs several household chores for the imposing Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). There is an instant palpable tension between the two women, and when Cynthia begins ordering Evelyn to engage in activities that have nothing to do with cleaning the house, it becomes clear that there is an S&M-based relationship between the two women. But which of the two women is dominant, and which is submissive?
Just when you think you have things figured out, director Peter Strickland pulls the rug out from under you and drags you deeper into a complex, passionate, compelling relationship. While Cynthia may be the one giving the orders, she’s coached on how to do this by Evelyn. Evelyn is both the dominant and submissive here, and it’s Evelyn’s job to make her lover’s fantasies come to life. But how long can a relationship that’s built on following orders endure, if the one giving the orders isn’t actually enjoying it? The complex relationship of these two women is at the heart of The Duke of Burgundy, a stunning masterpiece of a film that manages to be both an homage to the Euro exploitation films of Jess Franco while also standing utterly on its own.
Strickland’s film exists in a heightened, stylistic world. We never learn when or where exactly (somewhere, sometime in Europe is all the press materials say). The fashion the characters wear, as well as the typewriter Cynthia employs, all hint at a past setting, yet there’s still something distinctly modern about the film. It doesn’t matter in the end, because The Duke of Burgundy exists in a world all its own, full of fetishized filmmaking occupied with gorgeous, ornate tableaux. Contributing to its unique style is the fact that the cast is composed entirely of women–there’s not a man in sight in The Duke of Burgundy (though there are a few humorously placed mannequins). This could’ve come off as a “gimmick,” but it feels utterly natural in Strickland’s hands. Indeed, one of the things that makes The Duke of Burgundy remarkable is the way Strickland conveys the provocative goings-on in a wholly natural way.
The day-to-day lives of Cynthia and Evelyn are like a never-ending performance piece. Evelyn writes out little stage directions on index cards for Cynthia, and Cynthia complies because she truly loves Evelyn. Strickland gets great mileage out of the fact that the same scenarios are acted out again and again–once we learn the rhythms of the particular degradation Evelyn has dreamed up for herself, we wait, enraptured, to see how Cynthia will carry them out. The performances of the two leads are beautiful to behold. As Evelyn, D’Anna conveys a shy timidness while brandishing powerful control. Knudsen, as Cynthia, is strong and heartbreaking; we truly feel the weight of the relationship bearing down on her, and a later scene, in which she’s trying to bark orders at Evelyn while breaking down into exhausted tears, is an incredible sight to behold.
Despite the strain in the relationship, The Duke of Burgundy isn’t a film about abuse–even though there is plenty of that, in the form of face-sitting, mouth urination, and so on. Nor is Strickland trying to paint S&M relationships as unhealthy or dangerous. There’s nothing wrong with the activities the women are engaging in–the problem lies within the fact that Cynthia doesn’t enjoy inflicting them. There’s so much more here, but to give it all away would be a punishable offense. This is a film that needs to be not just seen but experienced. It’s the most exquisitely beautiful film ever to feature a credit for a “Human Toilet Consultant.”
The Duke of Burgundy is a gorgeous, remarkable work of art. It finds beauty and the sublime in shadows and nightmares and moves with the fluidity of a lovely, intoxicating dream. The soundtrack, by musical duo Cat’s Eyes, is haunting and powerful. The digital cinematography by Nicholas D. Knowland is so rich and textured it never fails to draw your eye. This is a perfect storm of a film: layer upon layer working congruently in expert harmony to create something delightfully unique and vibrant. The Duke of Burgundy is not only one of the best films of the year, but of the decade.
This review was originally published on January 23rd