It’s difficult to explain in print exactly why, but Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy may be the most uncommercial film about a BDSM-leaning lesbian relationship possible. Although Strickland’s film has sensuality to spare, it deliberately strays from being exploitative, choosing to explore the central couple’s universally relatable struggles with selflessness & compromise instead of engaging in typical blank leering. There’s a sexual element at play in nearly every scene, but the film is more romantic than voyeuristic. The Duke of Burgundy is a portrait of a long-term relationship’s struggling to find balance, with the more unique elements of the role playing games shared by its same sex partners functioning more as a detail that provides specificity than as an overwhelming fetishistic obsession. Strickland has found a balance here that threatens to tip in a disastrous direction at almost every turn, but instead holds steady, much like the romantic balance found within the film’s central relationship.
It’s not only the refusal to perv out that will keep The Duke of Burgundy from reaching a mass scale audience. It’s also a deliberately “artsy” film that luxuriates in its own gorgeous images & atmosphere, like a sex-tinged The Spirit of the Beehive. Strickland carves out a natural world here (as he did before in last year’s Bjork concert film, Biophilia Live), filling the frame with running water, wriggling insects, rustling tree limbs, and beating wings of moths & butterflies. So much of the film is composed of nature, books, lingerie, and women (I don’t think a single man appears on-screen), that a distinctly insular vibe is achieved, as if the entire film takes place within a cocoon. It attempts more of a preciously delicate visual aesthetic than it does a traditional, straight-forward narrative.
The Duke of Burgundy’s varied shots of a butterfly & moth filled specimen room sets a tone for how the film operates. It’s a narrative that relies on repetition & ritual, much like the repetition of a specific butterfly specimen is repeated within the display cases. Similarly, each image is tacked to the wall, hovering to be appreciated like a precious, organic object. Strickland finds emotional resonance in the film’s central relationship, but he also spends inordinate amounts of time reveling in the textures of the world that surrounds them. Filming the couple through mirrors, fringes, and fabrics, Strickland finds the same reverence for the sense of touch here that he did for sound in his 2013 ode to giallo, Berberian Sound Studio. It’s a challenging prospect for viewers, but the rewards are glorious.
Warnings of tasteful sensuality & highfaluting cinematography aside, The Duke of Burgundy is a lot more playful than you would expect from art house fare of its caliber. Sure, the film has a stuffy, old-fashioned vibe with interiors that are far more likely to conjure the words “parlor” & “boudoir” rather than “living room” & “bedroom”, but it also lets on that it’s self-aware of that vibe as early as the opening credits when it provides a title card that reads “Perfume by Je Suis Gizella.” Also, although the film’s central BDSM relationship has a serious issue at the heart of its struggles with power balance , the movie finds plenty lot of effortless humor in that conflict. The emotional tug of war at the heart of the film’s romantic conflict reminded me a lot of a poem deceased artist Bob Flanagan reads in the documentary Sick that starts, “Smart-Ass Masochists: Those are masochists who can take anything– can take anything they tell you to do. Anything I tell you to do I’ll do it just for you.” The power dynamics of a BDSM relationship are more complicated than they may first appear to an outsider and The Duke of Burgundy has a lot of fun playing that aspect for both humor and emotional resonance.
It’s incredible that The Duke of Burgundy never loses its balance. It’s an affecting story about true love, but it also sports piss jokes. It’s a movie that features kaleidoscopic cunnilingus, but it never approaches being salacious. It values strong, isolated images over plot & pacing, but never feels like a slog. It’s a well-made, satisfying film that simultaneously stimulates the intellect and entertains on a simple, surface-pleasures level. In short, it’s a fantastic, must-see film that will find you saying “Thank you so much. This is all I ever wanted,” even before one of the protagonists gets to say it first.