With his first two features, Katalin Varga (2009) and Berberian Sound Studio (2012), British auteur Peter Strickland has made a name for himself by exploring exploitation genres – the revenge thriller and Italian giallo – with a meticulous and innovative eye. His attention turns to seventies European erotica in his latest, the rigorously stylish, achingly sexy The Duke of Burgundy (2014), an intoxicating study of passion, thralldom and the finer aspects of using a loved-one as a human toilet. A more intimate and complete film than his previous outings, The Duke of Burgundy lingers long in the mind and cements its director’s much-deserved place as one of the most exhilarating currently at work.
Radiant soft focus falls on the sadomasochistic relationship between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her new housekeeper Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). From the moment the front door is opened upon Evelyn’s arrival, everything is geared towards magnifying the overwhelmingly fetishised atmosphere which – by the time she’s ordered to wash her mistress’ lacy underwear in a sud-filled basin – has reached melting point. When she misses a single pair of knickers, a glowering Cynthia forcibly drags her into the bathroom and proceeds to urinate into her mouth. It’s love, but not as we know it. The setting is a picturesque Eastern European town in a world devoid of men, meaning that the sapphic frisson is marginalised and the exploration of relationship dynamics are what make up the substance of this Gothic corset of a movie.
It’s not until a little later that the revelation begins to dawn on the audience that much of what’s being presented as fact is actually façade and recollection of a gloriously retro title sequence including a credit for perfume raise tantalising questions about whose precisely constructed fiction we were actually watching. As dominion oscillates and morphs, the nature of what we are watching does so too and exposed are the perfunctory and tiring preparations required to maintain such a sexually charged environment. Where Chiara’s eyes are filled with intense appetite, Knudsen fantastically betrays a yearning for a simpler, more tender love. A lepidopterist by trade – though she seems to be the only one in this secluded environ – she can’t help but be compared to the creatures trapped in cases on her shelf, preserved in their beauty and unable to take flight.
Certainties over who is bound and who is in control are ever-elusive except in the cinematic sense – Strickland’s discipline is key to the film’s success. As with his prior film, the soundscape is vital and perfect, with every heeled footstep or well placed cat purr increasing tension. Equally his genius lies in never veering into obscenity; this is buttoned-down desire and all the more potent because of it. That a dizzying climactic fantasy sequence takes place between Knudsen’s legs and leaves a remaining and palpable ambiguity only furthers the sensual and unsettling enrapture of The Duke of Burgundy.
The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 4-14 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.