You may be aware that within a two year period E.L James had written down a sexual fantasy that became extraordinarily popular and has been ridden like a money horse all over the place so that even the most unsociable of people know what Fifty Shades of Gray is.
However, to every Hollywood movie about a subject everyone likes to believe they know a lot about, there is always an artistic beautiful and honest equivalent snapping at its heels, more deserving of the fame and fortune that its ugly cousin is rolling around in. In this case I am speaking of The Duke of Burgundy a dream like fairy tale about S & M that is so gracefully done that the whole film lilts onto your brain like a goose feather onto a silk sheet. Presumably after a naughty pillow fight.
A sadomasochistic love affair between two women based in a closed community, seemingly populated entirely by female lepidopterists, The Duke of Burgundy is the first film to be written and directed by Peter Strickland since his last masterpiece, or his lasterpiece if you’d allow me such whimsy, and is more erotic and emotion filled than fifty of its contemporaries which gray by comparison. It stars Sidse Babett Knudsen as Cynthia, the cold detached woman of the house and Chiara D’Anna as Evelyn, the Marks to Cynthia’s Spencer.
The film begins with Evelyn riding up to the grand house in the middle of a beautiful European village, seemingly existing entirely on its own without an outside world which adds to the dream like tone. Forced to wait at the door, she is greeted with a firm telling-off and is soon forced to wash Cynthia’s underwear, which she does incorrectly and is punished off camera in a bathroom behind steamed glass.
The lines of morality start to blur a bit, and it isn’t completely obvious at this time who is in charge, as Evelyn becomes hungry for increasing amounts of domination, Cynthia seems to have grown tired of constantly having to treat someone she loves with such disdain. The film frequently flicks back to earlier scenes as plot develops to show them in a new light, sometimes focusing on the alternate woman’s view point during the scene, giving a new perspective.
The entire village collects in a meeting room to divulge their knowledge of lepidoptery, a sweeping shot of the crowd proves yet again to be all women, a few of which are visibly excited and entranced by the speaker. After returning home Cynthia and Evelyn receive a guest, played by Fatma Mohamed. Fatma plays an extraordinary character credited simply as The Carpenter, who makes a living designing contraptions to assist with the insatiable appetites of women like Evelyn and their particular hunger for humiliation and loss of control. The brief introduction of new women into the dynamic begins to show holes in the women’s relationship, Evelyn’s constant need to be forced to clean boots and be humiliated mixed with Cynthia’s mellowing causes quite an unpleasant tension.
The the film is very funny, but possibly only as we sense the ridiculous lives they are leading as nobody seems to have a job, and they never seem to eat or sleep except hedonistically but the invitation to get drawn into the film and to forget everything in your own life is too much. It is a beautiful film, it bears no resemblance to either Steven Shainberg’s Secretary nor Fifty Shade’s of Gray, and if you ever buy it, it could stand much more proudly amongst your DVD collection than either.
The Duke Burgundy is the name of a butterfly that Cynthia adores and it is in the nature of butterflies to appear from nowhere, be looked at and to disappear as beautifully as it arrived and this particular Duke of Burgundy is an incredibly satisfying movie.