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THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (review)

duke_of_burgundyTHE DUKE OF BURGUNDY

Written and Directed by Peter Strickland / Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna

Cynthia: When you work for me it’s for life. You have to do whatever I want whenever I want, because if you don’t, I just might tie you up and use you as my chair for the afternoon. 

To say that THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY is unusual would be a grand understatement. The latest film by Peter Strickland not only features an irregular plot, but it also experiments with sound and images unlike any other film. The result is a fascinating film that deals with shocking subject manner in an offbeat and often humourous way.

After a playful opening credit sequence, which includes credits for lingerie and perfume, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) waits by the door of her employer’s house. The elegant Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) greets her coldly, before sending her off to clean the house. Evelyn’s routine ends with washing Cynthia’s undergarments, rubbing her employer’s feet, and then following Cynthia to the bathroom to be used as a “human toilet”. This routine continuously repeats itself; yet, we soon learn that Cynthia is not the dominant as we have been led to believe. In fact, Cynthia is deeply in love with Evelyn, who pressures her to carry on with their BDSM ways.

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One of the many things that make THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY so fascinating is that there is never any explicit content shown. The film never shows the couple having sex, there is no nudity, and we never actually see this “human toilet” in action. Nevertheless, a strong sense of eroticism pervades through the entire film. Strickland proves himself as an extremely daring filmmaker, and it is somewhat surprising that he manages to get away with it all so well. One sequence in particular has hundreds of flying moths covering the entire screen, with the sound of their flapping wings blasted at maximum volume. This goes on for almost a minute. The result ends up being far more hypnotizing than it is absurd.

Even with its BDSM content and conversations about urinating in a partner’s mouth, THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY manages to be one of the most tender romances to be released in some time. Cynthia’s struggle with the dynamic of her relationship with Evelyn feels entirely realistic in what is a mostly dream-like film. This is largely due to the talent of the film’s stars. D’Anna (whose only previous screen role was in Stickland’s BARBARIAN SOUND STUDIO) brings a certain felinity to her role, which makes her demands even more enticing. Sidse Babbet Knudsen on the other hand is a Danish pro, making her English-language debut. Fans of foreign cinema will recognize her as the star of Susanne Bier’s Oscar nominated AFTER THE WEDDING. Each of these actresses exudes experience in their respective roles. At the beginning of the film, audiences will wholeheartedly buy Evelyn as the soft-spoken housekeeper and Cynthia as her ruthless superior. This makes the role reversal increasingly powerful.

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Strickland was certainly going out on a limb when making THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY. Between the content, the visuals, and the sound, the film is an experiment to say the least. Surprisingly, the experiment succeeds with flying colours.

4.5 sheep

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