After gathering rave reviews from trusted critics earlier this year, The Duke of Burgundy is finally available to the American masses. This is the latest film from writer/director Peter Strickland, whose divisive Berberian Sound Studio established a peculiar brand of 70s pastiche arthouse psychodramas that blend British folk horror and Hammer horror with Italian and French horror. This new film is a continuation of that brand, but with a narrative that is a lot less opaque. Berberian has been available on Netflix Instant (US) for some time, but now that The Duke of Burgundy is available there as well, this flick should rocket to the top of your list.
Set in an unknown 20th century time (no computers or cars) in an unnamed European town where no men or children are present, the film is about a loving and kinky relationship between two women — Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). When their master-slave dynamic begins to fall apart, we witness the development of a heartbreaking rift between them. It’s no less than mesmerizing. It’s also totally fucking weird, and the less you know about the film going in, the more mystery and pleasure you’ll find in the discovery of their daily life.
Like Berberian, Duke is very focused on sound. The foley work doesn’t fall into the background here — the ambience of every scene comes to the auditory foreground. Every breath, every creak, every rustle of fabric. The squish of soapy water when Evelyn washes Cynthia’s panties in the sink. The delicate patter of unseen rain. Cynthia’s snoring. The slow zzzzzip on a knee-high leather boot. It’s incredibly vivid; a film you can almost smell. Leather, paper, carpet, soap, the earthy damp of the forest. The idea of smell in Duke is clearly intentional — there’s a “perfume by” credit in the main titles. Strickland expands small moments into exhilarating sensual experiences, and does so without overwhelming the viewer with detail and visual bombast.
The film’s visuals are just as stunning as its audio mix. Strickland often frames his compositions with reflection and refraction through practical on-set glass. He uses windows and mirrors in the world like supplementary lenses. It allows him to juxtapose and duplicate. To imply that two characters are occupying a space in a certain way, then subvert that implication. Remember in Dr. Strangelove when Kubrick uses the mirrors in Turgidson’s hotel room to make it unclear where Turgidson is entering from? It’s kinda like that. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that Duke has some of the most beautiful lighting and color grading I’ve seen this year. It has a rich analog warmth that captures the feel of celluloid while also benefiting from the resolution and dynamic range of digital.
And what of our two leads? They’re great, I’m pleased to say. Sidse Babett Knudsen steals the show as Cynthia; exploring a huge range of emotions through a series of repeated kink scenarios. Each repetition is imbued with new meaning through subtle changes in performance (not to mention fantastic editing and cinematography). As the dominant in her relationship, Cynthia gets most of the film’s surprisingly humorous moments, especially when she’s punishing Evelyn. Speaking of humor, the film’s most quotable scene features a character known only as The Carpenter (actress Fatma Mohamed) who builds beds (and other household mainstays) specifically for the kinky relationships in this strange world. I won’t spoil it for you now, but there’s a line of dialogue in this scene so strange and so hilarious that it’ll either fully bring you on board or knock you out of the film entirely.
I do my best not to get hyperbolic in my reviews, but Strickland has made one hell of a film. It’s brilliantly conceived, lavishly realised, superbly acted, and gripping as hell. I can’t deny that its appeal may be very limited, though, even among genre enthusiasts. It’s weird, but also exquisite in almost every way. The Duke of Burgundy is one of the year’s top films, and now that it’s on streaming on Netflix in the US, there’s no time like right now to see it.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars