The Duke of Burgundy (2015; Dir.: Peter Strickland)
By Daniel Barnes
*Now playing at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco.
This luxurious and layered psychosexual drama is director Peter Strickland’s follow-up to his hypnotically stylish 2012 mindfuck Berberian Sound Studio, which followed the breakdown of a mousy sound engineer working on a gory Italian horror film. There are myriad similarities between the two films – the opening credits sequence of Burgundy, which includes a “Perfume by…” credit, could have been produced and mixed at Berberian in the 1960s, and Strickland’s camera fetishizes butterflies and bondage here in much the same way that it swooned over mixing board knobs and smashed fruit in the earlier film. It’s tempting to label the all-female Burgundy as Strickland’s sex-movie-without-sex B-side to his violent-movie-without-violence Berberian, especially since both films seem to encode their protagonists’ third-act psychological breakdowns into the DNA of their images. But Strickland penetrates much deeper into the psyches of his characters in The Duke of Burgundy, finding the erotic in the banal, the banal in the erotic, and infinity and insanity between a lover’s knees.
A meek “innocent” (Chiara D’Anna, another holdover from Berberian) arrives at the country mansion of a sexy, middle-aged butterfly expert (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and is ordered to begin cleaning: she is forced to scrub the floor on her hands and knees, wash panties with her bare hands, and receive punishment when she fails her duties. It gradually becomes apparent that this encounter is role play in a dominant/submissive relationship, but Strickland flips perspectives and challenges and confounds notions of relationship power in almost every scene. “As long as I’m yours, I’m alive,” says the submissive, but it’s apparent early on that she actually controls every aspect of their relationship. Even with Strickland’s weirdly seductive, David Lynch-goes-Giallo visuals and narrative discursiveness, the human conflicts in The Duke of Burgundy are hilariously mundane. The sudden appearance of a ghostly, moth-like saleswoman peddling custom-made bondage furniture eventually reveals the banality of an older woman failing to satisfy the petulant birthday wishes of her younger lover. “Would a human toilet be a suitable compromise?” Well sure, of course it would, but when you injure your back moving furniture, it would be a lot nicer to receive a back rub from your partner than to walk around in heels and read pre-approved humiliations off a 3X5 card. Both actresses are very good here, but Sidse Babett Knudsen is absolutely brilliant as the older woman, imperious and vulnerable at the same time. Between Knudsen, Anne Dorval in the upcoming Mommy, and Juliette Binoche in the upcoming Clouds of Sils Maria, my 2015 Best Actress ballot is already filling up fast.