'The Duke of Burgundy'
‘The Duke of Burgundy’ is an old-timey sexploitation movie filmed through art house pretensions. It’s naughty and fun with bursts of abstract filmmaking and intellectual impulses. In other words, this movie is a perv-out that you needn’t feel guilty about.
The plot involves a wealthy British academic (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her new subservient housekeeper (Chiara D’Anna). As the film kicks off, we see Knudsen treating D’Anna horribly, making her perform perverse tasks like washing her underwear with great care. Eventually, repetition reveals that it’s all an act. The pair are in a sadomasochistic relationship, and D’Anna is very much the one in charge, writing out their role-plays in great detail.
Writer/director Peter Strickland plays the story with great care and surprising humor. (A scene in which a “human toilet” is described feels ripped straight from a raunchy sex comedy.) Yet over time, he delves deeper into the relationship. There’s damage here that led both women to crave such a relationship, and the nature of their shifting power dynamics proves to be endlessly fascinating. Eventually, Strickland slips into the surreal and the abstract to visualize his themes, and it’s here that the movie becomes less interesting, even though it’s never close to a failure.
Much like his previous project, ‘Berberian Sound Studio’, Strickland has created something that feels like watching a cheesy ’70s exploitation movie and reading an academic analysis of its sociological, thematic and psychological implications at the same time. It’s an intriguing approach for the filmmaker to take, making explicit what was once only implicit in a certain brand of trash cinema, but it can also suck all of the fun out of a scene in an instant.
Thankfully, ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ is a far more consistent and playful project than ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ was. Strickland’s pretensions only overwhelm one extended montage, while the rest is played surprisingly straight. The performances by Knudsen and D’Anna are extraordinary, easily slipping from high camp comedy into deeply troubling psychological drama without ever feeling inconsistent. ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ plays like a guilty pleasure for the art house sect and a high-end think piece for trash movie aficionados. That’s a pretty amusing middle ground to strike.