Perfectly timed for local release this week, The Duke of Burgundy is a perfect arthouse rebuke of Fifty Shades of Grey. From the first frame, the film is imbued with a sense of style that feels like a sexy European film from the 1970s that was recently rediscovered. It took me a little while to look past this, but patient and open-minded viewers will discover a film that has moments of humor, darkness, doubt, and explores the layers of a long-term relationship, most explicitly, the push-pull nature of compromise required to sustain it.
The film operates on a small scale, rarely leaving the relationship bubble of the two women at its center. The film opens with a young maid, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) bicycling to the home of her employer Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). Over the course of the day, we see Evelyn chastised, berated, and punished. The film takes its time revealing that Evelyn is not Cynthia’s maid, but her lover, and they are playing roles in an S&M game that is planned out to the last detail.
Rather than following the journey of a naive young women exploring hidden parts of her sexuality, Evelyn seems to fully understand her needs. Writer/director Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) is more concerned with the toll that these games take on Cynthia. It becomes clear that Cynthia is doing this for her lover’s benefit, but sometimes finds herself struggling to fit into the role in which Evelyn has cast her. The uncertainty created in the mind of the viewer echoes that of Certified Copy, trying to discern the characters’ inner monologue based on what is left unsaid.
Even though their sexual practices are outside the norm, Strickland depicts them as routine for this couple. Something as exotic as being used as a human chair is reduced to the same kind of mundane conversation as deciding what to watch on TV. And with no less passion. No matter how odd it may seem from the outside, Evelyn and Cynthia’s struggle to incorporate these desires into their lives is no different from another couple arguing over one partner playing video games too often. The realities of day-to-day rituals define relationships, and accommodating the desire of the other partner is at the core of making any relationship work. By making this struggle feel universal, Strickland is able to explore how couples attempt to both live up to and shirk the “roles” thrust upon each other. How far can someone be pushed before they can’t live up to the expectation?
Of course a film with such a small cast is limited by the strength of its leads, but D’Anna and Knudsen give flawless performances. D’Anna shows both sides of someone who gets off on humiliation, oscillating between excitement that wants to burst through the layer of hesitation demanded by the role she plays, and someone with true emotional and psychological needs who wholly trusts her partner to meet them as best as she can. Knudsen has a more nuanced role, showing Cynthia’s silent struggle to be the person Evelyn needs and wants her to be.
A rare deep dive into the psychology of relationships, The Duke of Burgundy uses kink as a form of pronounced need to bring these issues to light. The result is a beautiful and evocative film, far more concerned with exploration than exploitation.
The Duke of Burgundy opens today at the Ritz Bourse.