Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Duke of Burgundy

Grade: 96/A

The Duke of Burgundy is the unlikeliest love story to hit the screen in years, and one of the most beautiful. The plot, about a lesbian S&M relationship, sounds targeted to male viewers’ more prurient interests more than it sounds like a romance. But the film is never sexy, exactly, nor is it about sex. Director Peter Strickland (whose Berberian Sound Studio unnerved without ever showing the lurid violence expected from the giallo movies it paid tribute to) makes The Duke of Burgundy less about the salacious elements at play and more about the feelings and motivations behind them.

The film’s opening deliberately obfuscates those motivations, introducing Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) as a maid to the severe Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who immediately rebukes her for her lateness. Evelyn quietly goes about her duties, sweeping the floor, polishing Cynthia’s boots, hand-washing her underwear. When Evelyn makes a mistake, she’s punished with (off-screen) water-sports. The next day, the sequence repeats. Cynthia and Evelyn love each other deeply, but this elaborate submissive-dominant ritual wears down on one of the parties, who does this only to please the woman she loves.

Saying too much more would do a disservice to the film, which gradually reveals the particulars of their relationship and the great lengths Evelyn and Cynthia go to in order to express their affection. One of the two needs this in order to be sexually satisfied. The other can only do her best to tolerate it. On the flipside of the coin is their interest in entomology: one is an expert in Lepidoptera, or the study of butterflies. The other is not. The first owns a gorgeous collection and attends multiple lectures. The other also attends, but she can barely keep up, asking irrelevant questions and giving incorrect answers. The first constantly plays recordings of butterflies humming, which annoys her partner. It’s a terrific parallel, illustrating the trying but inevitable process of lovers having to take part in interests that aren’t always shared.

Both actresses give moving, multilayered performances; D’Anna (who appeared in Berberian Sound Studio) is appropriately timid and unassuming in their sexual games, but her frustration with her partner’s interests is palpable, as is her humiliation when one moment goes too far. Knudsen is even better, displaying a deep fear that she’s slowly losing D’Anna. There’s a mid-film scene in which one woman masturbates the other under the covers while whispering sweet little nothings (or, rather, dirty little nothings) into her partner’s ear. She struggles to say the things that turn her lover on, fumbling to sound spontaneous and never saying anything with conviction. It’s a perfect encapsulation of their relationship, both in and outside the bedroom, as they both strive to keep the other happy while worrying that it’s not enough.

Strickland pays tribute to the kind of arty softcore films made by Jesus Franco and Tinto Brass in the 70s, complete with a dreamy score by British alternative duo Cat’s Eyes and an opening sequence that credits perfumists and lingerie makers. Remarkably, though, Strickland never eroticizes their encounters so much as he romanticizes them, viewing the more outrĂ© elements from a distance while showing boots or soaking pairs of panties in loving close-up, turning them into odd but strangely believable expressions of love. Cynthia and Evelyn’s kisses and embraces, meanwhile, are handled delicately, sometimes through superimpositions, as if they were too romantic to show, while their insecurities are communicated in an homage to Stan Brakhage’s avant-garde classic “Mothlight,” conflating sexual inadequacy with inadequate interest in the other partner’s field. It’s a highly aestheticized movie, but Strickland’s aims are in line with those of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Michael Powell or Douglas Sirk, a kind of emotionalism through artifice. With The Duke of Burgundy, he reaches their level.

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