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‘The Duke of Burgundy’: With Butterflies and BDSM, a Kinky Romance Woos Critics

'The Duke of Burgundy': With Butterflies and BDSM, a Kinky Romance Woos Critics

Given that Peter Strickland’s previous feature, “Berberian Sound Studio,” recreated the aesthetics of Italian gialli to an almost fetishistic degree, it’s not surprising that “The Duke of Burgundy” opens with a similarly obsessive homage, this time to the gauzy ’70s softcore of Jesus Franco and Jean Rollin. Nor is it a surprise that the central relationship, between timid housekeeper Evelyne (Chiara D’Anna) and her stern, unforgiving mistress, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), is itself centered in a kind of fetishism, although Strickland deliberately plays with the audience’s understanding of its precise nature. But by drawing our attention to that relationship’s particulars, which without being too specific involve the use of safe words and the phrase “human toilet,” Strickland conceals for good long while that “Duke” that figures into the is actually a profoundly sweet and melancholy story about how, or if, a romance can survive once the first flush of passion starts to cool. (The title, incidentally, refers to a variety of butterfly, which incidentally figures into the movie’s plot but was most appealing to Strickland for how little it reveals about its subject.)

Although it’s emerged as one of the Toronto Film Festival’s critical favorites, some reviewers (though not the ones quoted below) are at pains to establish their discomfort with “Duke’s” dominant-submissive eroticism, and to an extent, Strickland plays with the effect, using the novelty of BDSM and the film’s eerie, placeless setting to make the too-familiar plight of a waning relationship feel fresh, the way a couple might spice up their sex life with some consensual roleplay. But any distancing you might feel at first melts away as Strickland peeks behind the curtain of the world Evelyne and Cynthia have created for themselves, exploring the small but critical moments when the façades that cover their growing disaffection start to crack. It’s quite simply the most tenderhearted leipdoptery-themed, softcore-themed dominant-submissive lesbian romance ever made.

“The Duke of Burgundy” will be released by IFC Midnight. A date has not yet been set.

Reviews of “The Duke of Burgundy”

Leslie Felperin, 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.”

Allan Hunter, Screen Daily

There are strong echoes of Jean Genet’s “The Maids” here and the driving intensity of Peter Greenway’s films. 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.

David Ehrlich, Little White Lies

“The Duke of Burgundy” is so comprehensively absent of male presence that the lesbian relationship at the heart of the film isn’t touched by the sense of otherness that’s inherent to most queer cinema – the manner in which it’s revealed that the two women are lovers is so shocking that their shared gender becomes a distant afterthought, the same sex dynamic relevant only for how fluidly it allows Cynthia and Evelyn to modulate the roles they play for one another. 

Jordan Hoffman, Guardian

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.

Nicholas Bell, Ion Cinema

What gives the film its necessary depth is the level of sophistication they bring to material that could easily have veered into camp or hysterical melodrama—at its heart, this is a highly stylized and provocative statement on the nature of relationships, the ebb and flow of guises. They make a compelling pair, as sensually photographed in the lush, astounding cinematography of Nic Knowland as are the plants, insects, animals and landscapes.

Adam Nayman, Cinema Scope

For all the abstruseness here about moths, safe words, skeletons and sadomasochism — not to mention the almost science-fictional aspect of the film’s all-female universe, in which men are neither seen, nor heard, nor pined for — there’s something melancholy about Evelyn and Chiara’s rigorous, elaborate, and absurd bedroom gamesmanship, which finally seems an attempt to control the waxing and waning passions between committedly monogamous partners.

Joshua Rothkopf, 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. “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.

Robbie Collin, Telegraph

Knudsen and D’Anna are both terrific, and have tremblingly palpable chemistry, although the film is so teasing and elusive that after one viewing, you just want to watch the thing again, and feel your way again around its contours.

Nikola Grozdanovic, Playlist

The narrative of “Duke” starts to take an increasingly strange and surreal character, so infectious and consummate that it’s best left to the viewer to experience unadulterated. “Experience” is the operative word here — Strickland has created an exotic, perverted, endangered species of a film.

Ben Nicholson, Cine Vue

As dominion oscillates and morphs, the nature of what we are watching does so too and exposed are the perfunctory and tiring preparations required to maintain such a sexually charged environment. Where Chiara’s eyes are filled with intense appetite, Knudsen fantastically betrays a yearning for a simpler, more tender love. A lepidopterist by trade – though she seems to be the only one in this secluded environ – she can’t help but be compared to the creatures trapped in cases on her shelf, preserved in their beauty and unable to take flight.

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