‘The Duke of Burgundy’: Toronto Review

Toronto International Film Festival
Visually ravishing, emotionally wise, and kinky as a coiled rope, this sui generis feature is a constant delight

Sidse Babett Knudsen from "Borgen" and Chiara D’Anna star as lovers locked in a game of mistress and servant in Peter Strickland’s surreal follow-up to "Berberian Sound Studio"

Visually ravishing, emotionally wise, and kinky as a coiled rope, writer-director Peter Strickland’s third feature The Duke of Burgundy is a delight, a perfect companion piece to his previous giallo-cinema-seeped second feature Berberian Sound Studio. Set in timeless mittel-European other world where all the characters are women dressed in retro duds and have an interest in entomology, it features Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna as lovers who like to play mistress and servant. The film’s adult content, although more suggested than explicit, and doolally surrealism will keep it closed up in arthouse boxes theatrically, but it’s bound to develop a passionate cult following among cineastes and other specialist audiences.

Opening with a title sequence that’s all dreamy music, freeze frames and lurid washes of color, (credits are listed for “dress and lingerie” design as well as “perfume”), the action kicks in as seemingly shy, gamine Evelyn (D’Anna, from Berberian) arrives at the home of Cynthia (Danish drama Borgen’s Sidse Babett Kundsen), who appears at first to be her stern, exacting employer. Cynthia instructs Evelyn to clean the house, and then wash her panties. When one slip of silk is discovered neglected, Cynthia punishes Evelyn behind the closed bathroom door in a way that explains why Cynthia drinks so many glasses of water.

But everything is not all it seems. The cleaning, the punishments, and especially the dialogue spoken between the two women is all part of an elaborate sex game, one almost entirely dictated by Evelyn, the ultimate controlling bottom. Like a demanding director, she sometimes criticizes Cynthia for lacking conviction in her line readings and supervises the choice of every prop although Cynthia must be her own wardrobe mistress, arranging her wigs and lacing her own corsets. When she later throws her back out and takes to wearing comfortable pajamas instead, Evelyn’s starts looking in the neighborhood for a new playmate.

Shot in Hungary in a series of ivy-covered mansions and crumbling villas, the story unfolds in some kind of alternative universe where all the characters, all of them women, have some connection to a local entomological institute where they attend each other’s scientific lectures. (The closing credits, every bit as amusing as the opening ones, list all common and Latin names the lepidoptera and other featured insects seen throughout, including the titular butterfly.)

Although there are plenty of shots of arthropods pinned dead in glass cases, often in extreme close-up and later exploded via visual effects into a phantasmagoric dream sequence at one point, Strickland doesn’t seem to be making any kind of cheesy symbol out them. Well, maybe he is, but only to homage the kind of crude visual metaphors one finds in the film’s inspirations, especially the movies of Jess Franco.

But as with Berberian, Strickland’s game here is about much more than mere pastiche. He takes the mood and tonalities of schlock 70s cinema and repurposes them for something that feels very modern, and very personal. Thanks to the richly layered performances from the two leads, especially Knudsen, an intricate architecture of emotional co-dependence reveals itself, although there is plenty of humor as well.

If the film has one fault, it’s that Strickland’s script and Matyas Fekete’s editing create too many endings and the last run of scenes go on a trifle too long. Otherwise, Nic Knowland’s digital cinematography creates a woozy, textured environment for the action, brimming with mirror shots and games of focus that reflect the funhouse world of the action. Meanwhile, as with Berberian, sound plays such a crucial role and it built up in layers every bit as complex and nuanced as the visuals, using a mix of source noise, music by Cat’s Eye and the sound of insects.

Production companies: A Film4, BFI presentation in association with Ripken Productions and Protagonist Pictures of a of a Rook Films production

Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, Monica Swinn, Fatma Mohamed

Director, screenwriter: Peter Strickland

Producer: Andy Starke

Executive producers: Lizzie Francke, Anna Higgs, Amy Jump, Ildiko Kemeny, Ben Wheatley

Cinematographer: Nic Knwoland

Production designer: Pater Sparrow

Costume designer: Andrea Flesch

Editor: Matyas Fekete

Music: Cat’s Eyes

Sound recording: Rob Entwistle

Perfume: Je Suis Gizella

Sales: Protagonist Pictures

No rating, 104 minutes

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