EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a capsule review. The full review will be released once the film hits theatres.
If you judge parody by its commitment to the bit, then The Duke of Burgundy is the Andy Kaufman of euro-lesbian erotic experimental films. Characters stroll through the woods at night carrying candelabras and wearing nightgowns, while teasing harpsichord plays in the background; a love affair between two women becomes an opulent pas de deux of lust and power; insect and nature motifs are persistent to the point of confrontational, as dream and reality seem to intersect at random.
The Duke of Burgundy is role-playing one kind of film, but it’s something else entirely. That’s the point. It’s mighty convincing as an erotic thriller to start, with the dom-sub relationship between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) playing out like some gorgeously rendered schoolboy fantasy. But it’s not long before human realities start to show through in the surreal world that writer-director Peter Strickland has built. The film never breaks character formally, as Strickland constructs each frame for maximum sensuality. Yet, beneath all the artifice and absurdity of the matriarchal community Cynthia and Evelyn occupy lie the same relationship woes any average couple will face.
Recalling this year’s similarly beguiling Under the Skin, The Duke of Burgundy is a simple story that’s told as a visual brainteaser. Strickland is more than willing to deconstruct and satirize the rather specific genre he’s mirroring so well, and as a result, The Duke of Burgundy proves exceptionally funny once the real dynamic of Cynthia and Evelyn’s living arrangement is revealed. But what puts The Duke of Burgundy over the top is how it can have its titillating cake, and eat it too by always relating the sexcapades back to a believable partnership. Cynthia and Evelyn are always performing for each other, not an audience, and it’s what makes The Duke of Burgundy such a uniquely pleasurable blend of risqué drama, vampy comedy, and heartbreaking romance.