Director Peter Strickland has confounded critics and audiences with his Toronto premiere “The Duke of Burgundy.” Fans of his 2012 giallo throwback, “Berberian Sound Studio,” may not be fully prepared for the director’s newest offering: an homage to vintage erotica.
“The Duke of Burgundy” offers a stylized presentation of S&M focused on the relationship of wealthy lepidopterist Cynthia and her housekeeper Evelyn — in other words, employer and employee, slave and master. Few other figures inhabit the film, other than artful butterflies displayed in close-up.
Critics, mystified by the all-female cast, suggest that Strickland is challenging sexual desire and politics, but only as they apply to the viewer’s comfort level, playing with his audience in a way that recalls a line from the original master of the lewd: “The lady doth protest too much.”
Here’s a round-up of some very telling reviews. Release date from IFC Midnight forthcoming.
Guardian: “As stagey scenarios repeat themselves we discover that while Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) may seem like the slave, she is, in a certain respect, the master. She is submissive by choice and, in fact, is the architect of the increasingly peculiar and deviant sex acts Cynthia unleashes. Punishment is a big deal for Evelyn. While this sounds like the most absurd and reductive regurgitation of the dregs of Penthouse Forum, the way Strickland lays it out is eventually, and unexpectedly, quite sweet. Never in all of cinema has the mashing of panties against a face been quite so fraught with genuine emotion.”
National Post: “In addition to its many other virtues, Peter Strickland’s new film ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ boasts what is perhaps the greatest opening-credits title of all time: ‘Perfume’ by Je Suis Gizelle. It’s a delightful touch — and a very funny warm-up gag — but it also serves a more important function. The Duke of Burgundy, like all of Strickland’s work to date, is a film of tremendous ambience, and the acknowledgment of a fragrance we can’t smell invites us nonetheless to imagine that we can.”
The Hollywood Reporter: “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.”
Screen Daily: “Whether 1970s soft porn deserves such a slavish devotee is a moot point and one that might be lost on mainstream audiences unwilling to indulge Strickland’s folly. As we have come to expect from Strickland, the film is impeccably crafted and acted throughout and should arouse the curiosity of hardcore arthouse audiences and fans of his strikingly singular sensibility. “
Time Out: “There’s something slightly depressing about Strickland’s idea, taking the most outré and stylish genres (hard-fought against the mainstream) and infusing them with banal middle-age anxieties. ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ isn’t really for fans of softcore naughtiness, so much as their parents. Regardless, you get the sense that if Strickland had set his movie on some suburban couch in Brooklyn, it would work as well. He’s sensitive to romantic sadness and the creep of cooling ardor; the film has a traditional appeal that’s wholly separate from its surface.”
The Film Stage: “It’s a visceral experience that begs multiple viewings not to necessarily understand meaning, but to wrap your head around the abstraction. If nothing else it leaves a lasting impression–even to those who refuse to let it wash over them unencumbered. Out of time and place, we can trust nothing but the love. It causes pain, joy, discomfort, and pleasure sometimes simultaneously and others at the detriment of the rest, but it’s always there. Trapped in a box, soaring atop a moth’s wings, burrowing into a wormhole, or caressing a shoulder, we compromise and place ourselves second. We do what we can to satisfy our partner and these two simply do more. To enter their world isn’t easy, but it’s nothing but honest.”