Film Review: The Duke Of Burgundy

As I write this the current number one movie in the UK is 50 Shades of Grey. The story of a bondage loving billionaire and a bimbo reporter turned submissive. Of course the fashionable thing to do is to declare the movie nothing but a money making exercise, breathing life into a shockingly written piece of fan fiction, and then as a man, state that you’ll leave it to the female of the species to “go with the girls” and snigger, laugh and cry at the sight of a blindfold and handcuffs.

Or, you can just ignore it, and search out the better offerings currently in the cinema regarding love, relationship and if you want, BDSM. The first two apparently covered by Love Is Strange, although I’m yet to see it so cannot comment, while all three are discussed in Peter Strickland’s latest offering The Duke Of Burgundy. Which I have.

Sidse Babett Knudsen & Chiara D'Anna - The Duke Of Burgundy

Essentially it tells the story of an academic, her female lover and the power play relationship they have, but to describe it that simply is to do it a injustice because underneath it all is a film of real pondering and thought that asks such a simple question, but examines it in such beautiful detail that the end result is a film with a real touch of class. It almost feels like an exquisite piece of art that is to be appreciated more than it is to be enjoyed.

For large parts of the film I was thoroughly engrossed, caught up by the stunning personification of the idea. The longing question around what it means to share power in a relationship and the questioning of who really is in charge when the submissive is demanding the dominants force. The problem though, is that it is the only line of exploration this film really takes. It’s the central idea to which the film wants to really sink it’s teeth into. To pull you deeply into the debate and show you ideas you may not have considered. And it does so brilliantly, but because it’s so focused, it’s really hard to stay fully with it because it never gives you more than this one argument.

So much so, that I hate to say it but as the film went on, as the repetitive mental torture of undertaking the same forced actions over and over in the name of love were laid out, I started to get bored. It needed to refresh the question, it needed to look at it from another angle but it never did. The film just became monotonously stale and I lost interest, wishing it would finish a long time before the end. Getting more and more annoyed as it seemingly just took, one, more, unnecessary, step.

Chiara D'Aanna (Evelyn) - The Duke Of Burgundy

I have to admit though, the clarity it has to talk about and explore the ideas of shared, forced and unwanted power in a relationship, what love truly means and the effect they combine to have on people is breathtaking. But it mixes these up with sequences that just confuse and baffle. Peter Strickland also directed Berberian Sound Studio, and I remember that being the same, very stunning in its central idea but interlaced with too many fleeting moments of seemingly unconnected madness attempting filling the joins.

To highlight this, I have absolutely no idea how the world in which The Duke Of Burgundy takes place is meant to fit to the idea. Firstly, there is an all-female cast which, with the tone of the piece and the coolness of the setting, comes across as completely creepy and a little off putting. Then you have the lifestyle they lead, curating and studying moths, butterflies and insects to an almost religious devotion. And because neither is ever explained or expanded, providing a simple visual element to the film it just doesn’t make sense and results in a hash of secondary ideas that just distract from the main emphasis. Finally, you have a twisted passage towards the end that for a few moments totally destroyed everything that went before it because it descended into a tone of induced trance like confusion that skewed your belief in the ideas that the film had spent long arguing for.

Sidse Babett Knudsen - The Duke Of Burgundy

The Dukes Of Burgundy, while extremely good, is so confusingly warped and broken at times that I have come away not really knowing whether I have enjoyed it or not. One thing I am completely certain of, is that whether the plot and narration work together or not, the performance of Sidse Babett Knudsen in the lead role is magnificent. In fact it’s so stunning that if she doesn’t get award nominations next year then we’ve either that the greatest acting year ever, or a lot of people should hang their collective heads in shame. She makes you feel the torment, suffering and emotional tearing forced by her situation with so much power and realism that her performance is enough to make you almost forgive every other failing the film has.

I can’t finish this review without mentioning the fact the The Duke Of Burgundy is of course sexual in its very nature, and taboo’d in its specifics. But don’t let that put you off, yes there are moments of flirting sexual power play, but everything is fitting in context and the wider story. Mainly heard but never seen, with the moments of sadomasochism reserved to highlight a point rather than a sexual desire. This isn’t a film about whips, chains and blindfolds but rather about torture, love and dominance. The problem is that it doesn’t have quite enough to say and just remakes it point over and over again until you’ve lost interest. It’s like a stylus at the vinyl record just spinning and clicking, waiting and repeating. You can leave it in the background for a few minutes, but slowly and surely, it’ll end up just getting under your skin and winding you up.

7 out of 10 stars (7 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

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