DVD Review: The Duke of Burgundy

Starring: Sidse Babette Knudson, Chiara D’Anna
Director: Peter Strickland

Peter Strickland’s follow-up to the highly praised Berberian Sound Studio is a lingering duke-of-burgundy 1nod towards the sexy arthouse films of the early ’70s, particularly those of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. Two women in an ivy-clad country house play elaborately choreographed sex games. Cynthia has the dominant role, acting out the part of the chic, hard-to-please mistress, but it’s the seemingly meek Evelyn, dressed in her maid’s costume, who is the driving force behind their charades, leaving Cynthia cue-cards which detail her every word and action. Eventually, you start to feel sorry for Cynthia, realizing what a strain it must be for her to stay in character for her beady eyed audience of one.

The Duke of Burgundy makes sly points about the corrosive effect of fantasy upon relationships and about the narcissism of people like Evelyn, who love the fetish, not their partners. At the same time, though, the viewer might well feel that they’re trapped in a game as exhausting as the one that is slowly fraying Cynthia’s nerves – and there’s no relief, because the ‘real’ scenes, where Cynthia and Evelyn break out of their roles and become their true selves, are directed with just as much frigid remoteness as the sado-masochistic scenarios.

Despite the provocative ‘dress and lingerie’ credit in the title sequence, the erotic content of the film is minimal and handled with an unflattering gloom which seems stiff with puritanical disapproval – not that there’s anything really to disapprove of, as there’s no nudity or explicit content, with Evelyn’s ‘punishment’s’ happening behind closed doors. The whole film seems stifled in good taste and calculated effects, so much so that you long for a whiff of vulgarity. It’s all a bit draining and depressing, but it’s graced by a drily witty performance by Helen Mirren look- and sound-alike Sidse Babette Knudson as Cynthia and at least you can steep yourself in the plush production values and the shimmering, melodious faux-baroque score by Cat’s Eyes. 6/10

As with Artificial Eye’s release of Berberian Sound Studio, there’s a decent set of extras, including a bunch of deleted scenes and the following: 11-min interview with the director, in which he explains that he was originally asked to do a remake of a Jess Franco film; we also learn that the film was shot in Hungary on a budget of £1 million. ~ 4-min film featuring the Cat’s Eyes score. ~ A 7-min film from 1996, shot on Super 8, which basically consists of footage of dogs, with a noisy soundtrack. ~ Audio commentary with the director – very detailed and articulate, as you would expect with this director. He talks about, among other things, the 4-week shooting schedule, working an Arri Alexa digital camera and the influence of Spirit of the Beehive on Cat’s Eyes’ music. 7/10


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