Few films are able to capture the required grace and delicacy to make a sensual film (Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) being a shameful example of how not to approach sexuality) since many films who dapple in unorthodox sexual proclivities tend to tackle it head-on rather than approach it with any inkling of class. The Duke of Burgundy (2014) comes as the unsung hero to these kinds of films, playing on the dominant-submissive sexual relationship between student Evelyn and her mistress Cynthia. This well-appreciated though untraditional romantic flick made its rounds among indie film fests with great critical reception. So, let’s dive right in.
Like I mentioned, this film surrounds the kinky relationship between Evelyn, a Lepidopterology student (which is a fancy way of saying that she studies butterflies), and her professor and landlord Cynthia. The relationship transcends education and profession and soon the two become romantically involved. While Evelyn cleans Cynthia’s house as her maid, she finds herself intentionally falling short of her mistress’ strict expectations to be punished by her. Yeah, punished by her. Wink, wink.
Unlike a lot of other indie directors, Peter Strickland is no stranger to the full-length feature film. Before The Duke of Burgundy (2014), he was known for Katalin Varga (2009) and Berberian Sound Studio (2012), not to mention a biopic for Björk. This film stars the seasoned Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen and newbie Chiara D’Anna whose few films include Berberian Sound Studio (2012), making a familiar actor/director pairing there.
So we jump right into it: my first impression is how interesting it is that the erotic scenes are prefaced or hinted at with a hazy zooming in-and-out lens. I suppose that constant daze is pretty uniform for an erotic film, I just thought it was a nice touch. And if you’ve come here for a quick one-and-done sort of sexy movie, you’ll have to go elsewhere. The pacing of this film is very slow and drawn-out with a habit of being more subtle than forthright. Although, the build-up can be just as good as the execution in some cases.
For those familiar with the nuance of the sexual “kink”, you’ll find that this film is pretty tame with how it tastefully depicts the punishment kink. It’s almost like this is a BDSM film in theme only (so no, it’s not the picturesque latex mask and ball gag kind of deal). Thematically, it’s not very clear besides being about the story of two lovers in two very different roles in the relationship. The pace carries this story through instances where the boundaries are exponentially pushed.
It bears mentioning that this isn’t a stone-faced love story, there’s also a strange comedic element to some of the scenes. For example, when the Cynthia the dominatrix trying to console her lover when she berates herself and feels stupid after the question she asked in the butterfly lecture. It comes with a sense of irony that you can’t help but crack a smile at.
Some of the scenes are compelling as an unorthodox relationship drama and other are so unapologetically arthouse (using butterflies, it seems, as some oddly sensual imagery) that the average movie-goer might be turned off with the slow pace, recurring imagery that we have to interpret somehow, and just how far from the beaten path this film style takes itself.
Without spoiling the end, there’s an oddly ambiguous take from how the relationship turns out, whether it’s a matter of slight role reversal or the circumstances go full-circle with some big changes. Either way, it’s a lesbian film with some vague BDSM elements Drawn-out, sure, but there’s attractive elements yet. Kinda like a gay modern Charlotte Bronte novel where the characters find themselves while they take on this relationship and blah blah blah. It’s that but with softcore sex scenes. That’s cool, right?