If this is Valentine’s Day weekend, The Duke of Burgundy must be a deeply felt lesbian BDSM romance. Don’t arrive looking for titillation; there’s little in the way of sex and/or nudity. But writer-director Peter Strickland knows how to make you squirm with the discomfort of the reluctant voyeur at the sight of a woman hand-washing her lover’s panties or letting her face serve as a seat cushion. He also brings a ’70s arthouse softcore vibe to the story of Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), complete with alarming dream sequences, soft-focus intimacy, and airy liltings aimed at aural dreamery.
Cynthia is a gently aging entomologist (my, such a lot of pretty winged specimens pinned to her collecting board); Evelyn is her young and willing slave. Or at least, she plays one during their routine fantasy scenario (emphasis on routine). The film wastes no time in revealing the complicated power dynamics at work (or should that be “in play”?) in their relationship. The fantasy being indulged is very much the slave’s, and the master’s attempt to assert herself — by, say, wearing comfortable pajamas instead of elaborate lingerie — is cause for criticism. A botched birthday present — Evelyn wanted a bed with a storage compartment, but wound up with a basic lockbox instead — begins a chain of tiny but telling events that test the nature of the couple’s bond. Heh — he said bond.
The Duke of Burgundy Official Trailer
Unfortunately, the film’s chief crisis — an accusation of infidelity, in the serving realm if not in the sexual — comes at the cost of believability, hinging as it does on a bondage furniture saleswoman’s willingness to casually disclose the identity of her other clients. (It’s one thing to be interested in buying a device that turns you into a human toilet. It’s another thing to let the neighbors in on the secret.) Still, it’s an impressive achievement: the rendering of a private and extremely particular world in terms that any lover will understand. The great question: are they together for each other’s sake, or for their own?