The Duke of Burgundy

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Laura Clifford 
The Duke of Burgundy

Robin Clifford 

A young woman, Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna, "Berberian Sound Studio"), rides her bicycle up to a grand old manor.  The elegant older woman, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen, "After the Wedding"), who lets her in, immediately informs her that she's late, that she hasn't been given permission to sit and that she should clean the study but not take all day as she'd done before.  But all is not what it at first seems in the home of the cricket studying orthopterist and the amateur lepidopterist in "The Duke of Burgundy."

Laura:
Writer/director Peter Strickland's ("Berberian Sound Studio") latest begins with a bit of an ick factor as his opening lesbian S&M scenario ends with a behind-closed-door 'punishment' that sounds dreadful, but trust in this auteur as "The Duke of Burgundy" (a type of butterfly) blossoms into a louche hothouse Gothic that plays like Dario Argento's "Celine and Julie Go Boating" or Peter Greenaway's "Angels and Insects."  Continuing his penchant for creating films that feel like lush middle European relics from the 1970's (music here by Cat's Eye seals that impression), Strickland's artful film slowly reveals itself as a romance where the older of two lovers is losing confidence in her ability to maintain the interest of her partner.

Knudsen is marvelous, at first imperious in her role.  But once we learn that Cynthia is indeed playing a role, and one that is not her choice, the actress lets us see slivers of impatience, distaste, then doubt and sorrow.  D'Anna's flip isn't as extreme, the less experienced actress at first downcast, then a spoiled child (her repeated demands of 'Be nasty!' are followed at one point by a sulky criticism that Cynthia didn't have enough conviction in her voice).  The all female cast also includes "Berberian's" Fatma Mohamed as 'The Carpenter,' an elegant custom merchant of the type of niche product that excites Evelyn to no end (talk of a human toilet is used to draw Cynthia's line, but Strickland knows how to implant an idea with more humor than grotesquery).  Zita Kraszkó's Dr. Schuller is the severe, black-booted moderator of the weekly talks on insects the two women attend and Jess Franco vet Monica Swinn is the neighbor, Lorna, who tells Cynthia Evelyn's been seen polishing Schuller's boots, a serious betrayal.

Cinematographer Nicholas D. Knowland fetishizes his subjects, whether they be in the hazy, bright rapture preferred by Cynthia or the darkness where light hits her black stockings like gold dust.  An oval window set in an ornate dark wood that is used to view the lovers is eventually identified as the decoration in the coffin-like cupboard Evelyn enjoys being locked away in. In a nightmarish fantasy sequence worthy of David Lynch, Knowland zooms in to Cynthia's crotch, a place where death's head moths swirl about blindfolded subjects.  Sound designer/supervising sound editor Martin Pavey ("Kill List," "A Field in England") unsettles with the recording of mole crickets Cynthia uses to relax.  Costumer Andrea Flesch keeps Evelyn in schoolgirlish attire while Cynthia's attire alternates among severe business suits, tight corsets and the type of large brimmed hats and capes worn by jet setting aristocracy.

If a lesbian S&M film doesn't sound like your cup of tea, think again.  In Strickland's hands, the journey is eerie, funny and ultimately melancholy, its two lovers suspended in a spiraling time capsule.

Grade:  B+

Robin:
Robin also gives "The Duke of Burgundy" a B+.
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