THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY"
The Duke of Burgundy is like Fifty Shades of Grey as staged by Masterpiece Theater. It contains an excess of prim and proper British elegance, interrupted when people start talking about things like “human toilets.” Director Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) takes a huge risk with the film, which comes to Blu-Ray on September 29 from Shout! Factory. By fusing classicism with cutting-edge erotica, he produces a work like no other. But it's also something that will sharply divide viewers. You'll either be absorbed by the movie's curious approach, or you'll be put off by the way it seems to perpetually call attention to itself.
This is the story of Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna), a woman who works as a maid at the home of a lepidopterologist named Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Cynthia is a stiff, rude woman who harshly chastises her for even the most minor of transgressions. At first, we wonder why Evelyn continues to work there. Then it becomes clear. She and Cynthia are actually lovers, acting out a carefully-scripted role-playing game designed to heighten Evelyn's arousal. Cynthia becomes frustrated with the repetition of this scenario. In an effort to shake things up, she buys her lover a trunk to be locked into all night, as a form of the “punishment” she craves. Far from solving a problem, the trunk creates more.
The Duke of Burgundy explores sensuality between two women with very different needs. One of them wants to feel dominated; the other wants a more natural expression of love, and only complies with the charade because it pleases her partner. She willingly subjugates her own desires, believing that doing so is a sign of her affection. The film looks at the toll this arrangement takes as Cynthia becomes increasingly tired of having to perform a ritual of cruelty in order to get intimacy. In its look at mismatched turn-ons, The Duke of Burgundy proves to be a thoughtful examination of mature sexuality – something we see all too rarely on screen. It takes sex seriously, focusing on the need to have not only compatibility, but also understanding in a successful intimate relationship. The lead actresses, both of whom are excellent, are totally game for the plot's kinkier qualities.
The way that theme is explored is the make-or-break component for The Duke of Burgundy, though. Strickland goes overboard to give the film a distinctly proper British aura. The idea seems to be to contrast the form of the story with its content. Aesthetically, it's like Howard's End on stereoids: elegant sets and costumes, restrained tone, ethereal music score, etc. If you watched it with the sound off, you'd think you were watching a boring late-'60s British costume drama. Then, every once in a while, Strickland throws in something radically different, such as a shot of the two leads in some gymnastic-looking sexual position, or a stunningly frank discussion of a fetish. One love scene is shot with mirrors so that we simultaneously watch the lovemaking and its reflection. Sometimes there are rapid shots of moths and butterflies interspersed with whatever Cynthia and Evelyn are doing. The director even does a few things on near-subconscious levels. There are no men in the film, for instance, and one crowd scene features obvious mannequins in the background.
Such an unusual approach is undeniably admirable. It's also distracting if you find yourself unable to get on The Duke of Burgundy's wavelength. In every second of its running time, the movie calls attention to its intentionally artsy vibe. The style is so apparent – and so inescapably noticeable – that it can become difficult to get emotionally engaged in Cynthia and Evelyn's story. In other words, as well-made and ambitious as The Duke of Burgundy is, the pervasive artifice is its own worst enemy, serving to distance the audience from the human drama that is supposed to pulling us in.
In the end, this is a picture some people will love, and others will be left cold by. No one will be bored, though.
( out of four)
Shout! Factory's Blu-Ray release comes with some substantive bonus material. Director Peter Strickland is the subject of an 11-minute interview, in which he talks about taking on sexuality in such a creative, provocative manner. On a related note, there are 44 minutes of deleted scenes, all of which begin with lengthy text introductions from the director. He's brutally honest about stuff that didn't work or negatively impacted the flow of the story.
Conduct Phase is a bizarre, formless 8-minute short film Strickland made about stray dogs. It again shows his penchant for visual experimentation. Finally, there is a music video from Cat's Eyes (the band that provided music for the film), the theatrical trailer, and a still gallery.
For more information on this title, please visit the Shout! Factory website
The Duke of Burgundy is unrated, but contains graphic sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.
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