Friday, April 24, 2015

The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

Director: Peter Strickland
Writer:    Peter Strickland
Cast:       Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D'Anna, Monica Swinn

The film begins with Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) shown to be a submissive maid of aristocratic & obnoxious Cynthia (Side Babett Knudsen). This sequence is from the perspective of Evelyn and she seems to have sexual feelings for Cynthia. The next twenty minutes of the film is from the perspective of Cynthia and the Master-Slave aspect of their relationship is altered when we are shown that Cynthia is acting under the orders of Evelyn and the latter enjoys being under the command of a dominatrix. During the rest of the film both of them are shown to be quite equal in terms of power aspect of their relationship and it is one which is associated with all the strains that are common in any normal relationship. 

You can go to town with all the metaphorical possibilities from the film. One could see it as a metaphor for the art of theater or even consider it is a metaphor for our relationship with the society at large and I am going for the latter. Our relationship with society and its conventions are generally submissive in nature and majority of people are quite happy to go along with it. At the start of the film, the characters are very much dressed as how they are supposed to be in keeping with the story but later on Cynthia starts wearing comfortable clothes which Evelyn objects to. We are not sure whether Cynthia is going method with her domination over Evelyn or she can't take seriously the ridiculous charade she is engaging in to keep her lover happy.  The safe word that they use for calling timeout during their role plays is 'Pinastri', which is the name of a certain type of butterflies, and both of them are engaged with research on butterflies. Butterfly is an insect which undergoes drastic changes in its appearance during its lifespan and the film is also doing the same with the audience. There is another character called Lorna, a much older maid, who doesn't utter a word or shown in close-up. She can be seen as a representative of other people who sit outside looking in making judgments (audience). 

Peter Strickland's previous film, Berberian Sound Studio, was a surreal horror and this one can be seen more of as a comedy with a kinky relationship at the center of it. Luis Bunuel is a huge influence on Strickland and my favorite film of the former is 'Belle de Jour', which also had a protagonist who sexually enjoys being submissive. One of the characters in the film is called Dr. Viridiana, which is of course a reference to another Bunuel masterpiece, 'Viridiana'. A recurring scene in the film is a punishment meted out to Evelyn behind closed doors where she is asked to lie down and we hear the her choking to the sound of running water. Over the course of the film we understand that it is another one of their exercises titled 'Human Toilet' and you don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what was happening. Even though I was laughing my way through the film there is always an uneasy horror feel to the film but that might be due to me being aware of Strickland's previous feature films. I was almost expecting Cynthia to turn out to be a man, which doesn't happen, and there are no male characters in the film.

Overall it is a great watch and tremendously funny. It is I guess a good version of '50 Shades of Grey', which I haven't seen yet. I was reminded of Lars Von Trier's 'Nymphomanica: Volume 1' in terms of tone, both storywise and visualization.  Some of the scenes are hypnotic and the background score is stunning. It was made with a meager budget and critical reception have been quite positive. Berberian Sound Studio, which I loved, divided the audience much more. Strickland is one to keep an eye out for and his debut film 'Kataline Varga' was also very good. Sidse Babett Knudsen is of course familiar as the prime minister character in the Danish political drama series 'Borgen'. 

Rating: 4.5/5