Two women act out a simple yet provocative daily ritual that ends in both pleasure and pain. When one of the women yearns for a more conventional relationship, her partner's obsession with erotic spellmaking quickly becomes an addiction that may push the relationship to its breaking point.
A lesbian S&M drama without nudity, whips or spanking may sound like a tame disappointment, but The Duke of Burgundy is a treat for both the senses and the intellect. The amber-tinted Vaseline-smeared opening credits show a young woman sitting by a babbling brook and studying butterflies, light filtering through trees, accompanied by breathy vocals and harpsichord music from musical duo Cats Eyes. It seems like we’re in for some lush, slightly trashy 1970s European erotica. But the frame freezes at crucial moments, the edit insisting we stop and move on before we’re lulled into any cheap genre pleasures.
The young woman, Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna), rides her bicycle to a country mansion. She’s met at the door by a stern older woman, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudson, best known as the world’s loveliest Prime Minister in Borgen). It seems Evelyn is some kind of servant or maid, eager to please her mistress, but always getting it wrong. She’s ordered to perform a series of tasks, from the mundane (dusting and polishing boots) to the intimate (hand-washing her mistress’s silk underwear and rubbing her feet). At every point, the submissive is unable to please the dominant, and she’s met with harsh words and strict discipline, some of it administered in the bathroom behind closed doors. It quickly becomes obvious that far from being meek and downtrodden, Evelyn is literally scripting these exchanges for her own masochistic pleasure, while her increasingly reluctant lover is growing tired of the cruel and repetitive games.
With vaguely 1970s styling, the story is set in a kind of timeless middle European neverland (though it’s actually shot in Hungary), and takes place among an exclusively female community of entomologists. Evelyn is an amateur lepidopterist – she dreams at night of being swarmed by velvety brown moths. Cynthia, on the other hand, is a world-renowned expert who listens in rapture to audio recordings of obscure crickets. The only real social outing they make is to a series of entomology lectures, where everyone is female, and therefore naturally lesbian. The conceit of this is acknowledged within the film as we see the audience is peppered with obviously fake shop mannequins. It’s a kinky yet naturalised world, where infidelity involves the polishing of another woman’s tall black boots, yet there’s no coyness either about showing female orgasms and the efforts required to achieve them.
'Far from being meek and downtrodden, Evelyn is literally scripting these exchanges for her own masochistic pleasure.'
Sly and often hilarious, The Duke of Burgundy is nevertheless a serious meditation on long term sexual relationships. What happens when one person’s ultimate turn-on (Evelyn desires a mind-boggling contraption known as a ‘human toilet’) is the other person’s disgusting turn-off? How do you maintain desire over time and through ageing and illness? It’s heartbreaking to see the older woman craving a simple cuddle and longing to discard uncomfortable sexy underwear. Her ultimate act of defiance is the donning of baggy flannelette pajamas.
British writer-director Peter Strickland, whose previous works include micro budget rural revenge drama Katalin Varga (2009) and stylish art horror film Berberian Sound Studio (2012), has said that the starting point for this script was ‘to see how the disreputable genre of ‘70s erotic cinema could be resuscitated’ – and he’s certainly achieved that. Inspired by the torrid works of Jess Franco, as well as those of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and even some of the ‘50s melodrama of Douglas Sirk, Strickland has created a significant work of art in its own right. With credits including lingerie designers, perfume suppliers and, of course, a ‘human toilet consultant’, Strickland’s sense of play could easily have degenerated into kitsch parody. Yet the lingering impression is one of exquisite (though decadent) good taste. There’s wisdom here too, in the film’s argument that true love must continually compromise and reinvent itself if it’s to endure longer than a single over-heated season of lust.
The Duke of Burgundy is out now.