The Duke of Burgundy is a rare cinematic gem which asks a lot of its audience but in turn rewards them with a deftly observed and layered screenplay, pinpoint-precise acting and richly sensual visuals. One takes great pleasure in delving deeply into the multitude of layers that make up the film’s fabric, for it is rare to encounter a film that is so vibrantly alive and complexly human. This is far more than another 50 Shades of Grey film about duct tape and whips. Here the sadomasochism aspect of the storyline is underpinned by real insight and humour. The BDSM element never overshadows a film which is primarily concerned with lovers and the emotional battleground in which they engage.
The film focuses very tightly upon its two lead actresses; Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna. These two both give extremely accomplished performances in roles that require real precision and control; making use of minute gestures and subtle inflections within their line delivery in order to communicate huge swathes of character and emotion. These are sharply and perceptively written roles and it’s a joy to see them realised and explored so fully. To say more though would be to take away from the film’s narrative surprises and that’s the last thing I would want to achieve here, for The Duke of Burgundy is a film which takes great pleasure in teasing and manipulating us and our expectations.
Strickland’s direction oozes confidence here as the film navigates its layers of emotion and sensuality with apparent ease. Many a film would trip up somewhere along the journey and cave in upon itself, but instead here we have a film that knows exactly how much to give us at any one time and how much to hold back. Strickland’s assuredness extends into the film’s occasional butterfly motif, a fascinating aspect of the film which I am still thinking over and developing new interpretations of. Also real credit has to go to the film for being so richly sensual and overtly sexual without having to resort to nudity. It’s not that nudity would have felt cheap here, I imagine it would be easily justified and well handled. But you have to take your hat off to those who can put that restraint upon themselves and yet still create such a sexually charged atmosphere.
When watching this film you might recall Carter-esque fairytales about sexuality, human weakness and desire with it’s European setting and the timeless and almost fable like setting. The film seems to be set in an alternative world that is difficult to place in time or indeed culture. Where there appear to only be women, many of whom seem to practice sadomasochistic relationships behind closed doors. It is an unreal setting and yet the throbbing heart of the film is uniformly human and relatable. The relationship we follow on screen is at once luxurious and primal, strange and yet also familiar. You’ll leave the theatre enthralled by the depth of the film and turning over its symbolism in your mind, but more than anything else you’ll leave having formed a tangible and affecting relationship with these two women.
What is the film’s greatest strength? What a tough question… I would say it’s ultimately the script but there’s many standout elements to this film.
Its greatest weakness? I have no serious criticisms here.
Would I see it again? Absolutely. This was a real joy, a cinematic gem that deserves to be watched and re-watched many times.
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