‘The Duke of Burgundy’ Review: ’50 Shades’ with Brains

'The Duke of Burgundy'

Movie Rating:


Back when I first saw ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, it felt like a delightfully naughty art house romp. In the post ’50 Shades’ world that we all unfortunately live in, it now feels like mini triumph that turns an S&M relationship into a genuinely moving love story that’s funny, touching, truthful, surreal and kind of magical. A few months ago, it felt like at best a perverse curiosity. Now it feels like a vital antidote to a runaway BDSM hit that needs to be stopped.

Self-conscious film nerd writer/director Peter Strickland (‘Berberian Sound Studio’) opens his movie with a campy and freeze-frame heavy credit sequence that will spark fond memories from anyone who’s ever sampled a 1970s Eurotrash sexsploitation picture for ironic or nefarious purposes. That playful tone continues into a world of jolly naughtiness as we follow an innocent young French woman (Chiara D’Anna) who wanders into the country estate of a crusty, commanding British woman (Sidse Babett Knudsen). D’Anna is clearly her maid and gets routinely chastised for not doing her work properly until Knudsen demands a foot massage. These sorts of activities continue with increasingly cruel and perverse punishments for D’Anna until it becomes clear that what we’re watching isn’t actually a cheesy bit of Euro-erotica, but a prolonged game of role play in that style from a pair of lovers. Pretty much the entire movie plays out through these fantasy scenarios, and Strickland gets remarkable mileage out of the sheer volume of tones that he’s able to milk from them.

One of the most intriguing elements of the film is how slowly and delicately Strickland reveals the reality of the situation to the audience. Gradually, we realize that this isn’t just a fleeting game, but one that’s gone on for quite a long time and is carefully scripted by D’Anna’s initially presumed victim and acted out (almost against her will) by Knudsen. More than that, it’s a game that they seem to be growing tired of, and we see that through their games more than any words spoken between the pair. It’s something that Strickland can play for straight comedy, like having Knudsen appear in jammies when confining leather was requested as a passive-aggressive stab, or in far more twistedly humorous moments like the sight of a woman gently weeping from exhaustion while sitting on her lover’s face.

Though the movie springs from a genre designed for naughty provocation, Strickland’s approach is refreshingly tasteful and emotional. He may poke fun at the form and extremities of the genre he’s teasing through homage, but he also crafts a very honest and truthful adult relationship at the core. There’s love here, odd though it may be, and the film quite movingly explores the challenges of maintaining a mutually satisfying relationship. The movie could be about any relationship, but it’s admittedly far more fun that this particular relationship involves fraught debate over purchasing expensive scat toys.

Both the lead actresses are remarkably strong, cleverly revealing their true characters while rarely getting a chance to play a scene that isn’t layered through irony or role play. Strickland shoots it all in a mixture of pretty pastoral photography and enigmatic dreamlike montages. A few times, the film dips out of reality and into purely experimental fare, like one particularly jarring Stan Brakhage-style sequence that feels like a step too far.

Though Strickland has firmly established a unique voice for himself through only a handful of movies, he still hasn’t quite firmed into a singular style. He works in hodgepodge pastiche, pulling from a wide variety of cinematic influences, from lowbrow Eurotrash to impenetrable art house abstraction. While that approach can often lead to thrillingly unpredictable films, his most pretentious inclinations can often be his undoing. Thankfully, in the case of ‘The Duke of Burgundy, only one sequence really flies off the rails. For the most part, he’s managed to create a thoroughly engaging movie that is at once stylistically silly and deeply humane in its approach to the nutty erotic subject matter.

To make a movie this rich out of source material so trashy is a major coup for Strickland that instantly raises him amongst the ranks of the world’s finest oddball auteurs. ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ is the perfect alternative for anyone with too many brain cells to suffer through ’50 Shades of Grey’. You’ll get all of the illicit thrills you seek from guilty pleasure cinema and a thoughtfully crafted work of art as well. Not bad for the price of a single ticket.

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