Review Index



An impressive exercise in erotic delirium by England’s Peter Strickland, who takes quite a few elements common to grade-B auteurs like Jess Franco and Walerian Borowczyk--lesbianism, S&M, sexual excess--and creates a tightly controlled fever dream of a movie.

The Package
     Peter Strickland’s previous efforts were the highly acclaimed features KATALIN VARGA (2009) and BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012). THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (2014; released in the U.S. in early ‘15) wasn’t quite as warmly received, although it is in fact the most accomplished of the three films.

The Story
     The young and (seemingly) naïve Evelyn goes to work as a maid in the country mansion of Cynthia, a seductive butterfly enthusiast. An immediate air of sexual tension grips both characters, leading to a sadomasochistic relationship in which Cynthia deals out increasingly elaborate punishments. The air of constrained sexuality becomes increasingly overt, with foot massages quickly giving way to “forbidden” touches and caresses.
     Yet it also becomes clear that these ladies’ true roles aren’t nearly as cut-and-dried as they might seem. Their entire dynamic, in fact, is a sham, with Evelyn gradually revealing herself as the controlling agent. It’s she, we learn, who picks out Cynthia’s seductive outfits (Cynthia complains at one point that “I need an instruction manual to get into half the things you buy me”).
     One day an attractive woman carpenter enters the house, ostensibly to construct a bed frame. During the visit Cynthia assumes the servant role while Evelyn lounges around in outfits that grow increasingly revealing.
     A new dynamic is introduced when Evelyn admits to having polished the boots of one of Cynthia’s colleagues. Cynthia is overtaken by jealousy, and to win back her affections Evelyn goes back to being the submissive waif she was at the beginning.
     But then another switch occurs when Cynthia discovers a skeleton in a bureau where she often encloses Evelyn, which induces a most disturbing hallucination…

The Direction
     According to a 2015 interview, Peter Strickland’s inspirations for this film were the “disreputable” 1970s sexploitation programmers by directors like Radley Metzger and Jess Franco, which often involved lesbianism and S&M. THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY also provides a complex tweaking of the quintessentially English master-and-servant role reversal trope, represented by THE SERVANT, THE ORDER OF DEATH and others. It likewise resembles CRASH somewhat in its complete lack of explanation for its characters’ perverse relationship, and nor does it specify a setting or time period. Such things clearly weren’t among Strickland’s primary concerns, and their absence isn’t nearly as jarring as you might expect.
     Ultimately the film is quite unique, with an impressively controlled atmosphere of constrained eroticism that fully befits the mock-Victorian set design (accomplished, FYI, by Hungary’s Pater Sparrow, who happens to be a skilled director in his own right). A highly fetishistic, often dreamlike air predominates, with lingering close-ups of nylon stockings, spiky boot-heels, dress straps and so forth, which are utilized more often than not in place of sex scenes.
     That’s in addition to eccentric elements such as a lecture audience comprised of several back row mannequins, as well as shots through glass that subtly distorts peoples’ facial features and a hint of the aural experimentation of BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO in a climactic sequence involving a swarm of moths, whose fan-like wings overpower the soundtrack. The film also has its own distinct mode of storytelling trickery: the narrative frequently doubles back on itself, with several scenes repeated, albeit with subtle variations in behavior, dialogue and outcome.
     Equally noteworthy are the strong performances by the leading ladies, especially the Danish Sidse Babett Knudsen (of BORGEN) as Cynthia, to whom Strickland devotes innumerable close-ups. These depictions are all the more effective due to the fact that Ms. Knudsen’s body is not that of a Hollywood starlet, but, rather, a real woman (albeit an unusually attractive one). Imagine that!

Vital Statistics

Rook Films/The British Film Institute/Film4

Director: Peter Strickland
Producer: Andy Starke
Screenplay: Peter Strickland
Cinematography: Nic Knowland
Editing: Matyas Fekete
Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Monica Swinn, Chiara D’Anna, Monica Swinn, Fatma Mohamed, Kata Bartsch, Zita Kraszko, Gretchen Meddaugh, Eszther Tompa, Eugenia Caruso