Unbound, by Matt Warren
Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy is a very odd movie about very basic human emotions. It’s simultaneously a hyper-stylized pastiche of 60s-and-70s-era European erotic melodramas and a realistic exploration of what it takes to keep passion alive in a long-term relationship. Really, it’s not too different from a lot of current domestic-angst TV shows—I’m specifically thinking of FX’s Married and HBO’s Togetherness. But Burgundy’s otherworldly tone and interludes of psychedelic, bad-trip formal experimentation set it completely apart from anything else on screens right now, big or small. Plus you jack off to it. That’s what we entertainment industry pros call “added value.”
Burgundy takes place in an eerily nonspecific pan-European, pan-20th-century milieu vaguely reminiscent of the unreal world of such Lars von Trier movies as Melancholia and Nymphomaniac. Though never specified, this seems to a place where men are either nonexistent or are so marginalized as to never once wander through frame or warrant discussion. Centered at a picaresque countryside lepidopterists’ institute, the story follows the complicated romance between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a tenure-level professor of some sort, and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), who’s, I don’t know, a grad student maybe? Having lived together for what appears to be a very long time, Evelyn and Cynthia find themselves locked in a rapidly fractaling spiral of intensely complex erotic roleplay. Evelyn has a thing for being humiliated, and is fond of adapting the persona of a Cinderella-esque scullery maid whose every minor fuck-up is punished by stern headmistress Cynthia, with punitive measures including—but not limited to—mouth-pissing and getting locked inside an antique wardrobe trunk overnight.
Whether Cynthia ever really enjoyed this or if she only plays the Dom role to placate her (somewhat) younger lover is unclear. What is clear, however, is that by the time the film begins Cynthia is no longer finds these reindeer games fulfilling. Meanwhile, Evelyn’s demands grow more elaborate and extreme—like an oversexed fuck junkie with an out-of-control kink habit. Either way, the women are united in one simple fact: their needs aren’t being met by the current terms of their relationship. At heart, Burgundy is about the difficulty of keeping couplehood functional when the partners’ wants are at cross-purposes. These ladies need Paul Reiser.
Further complicating things is the convoluted power dynamic at play between the partners, which is ever-evolving and practically Phillip K. Dickian in its tangled layers of meta-reality. Cynthia, with her upper-tier academic position and (slightly) advanced age seems, at first, to be the elevated one both IRL and within the couple’s roleplay. But it’s actually Evelyn who dictates the terms of each erotic encounter, scripting out every plot beat and line of dialogue on elegant notecards and acting as costume designer, prop master, and stage manager. Is it a metaphor for the dysfunctional relationship between Filmmaker and Audience? That’s a pretty boring and myopic interpretation, but still valid. The more interesting question is: who has the power in a relationship, and how? And when does the choice to cede power become to be the biggest chess move of them all?
Strickland (who also wrote the screenplay) navigates every jagged turn of the Sapphic showdown with sophistication, style, and subtlety. But what’s that? You don’t think a movie where lesbians pee on each other, lick boot, and argue about delivery specs on custom sex furniture sounds subtle? Well what if I told you that the film was also peppered with numerous surreal, epilepsy-inducing collages consisting of bizarre insect imagery and brutalizing Dadaist soundscapes? Well it is subtle somehow. Not to mention genuinely sweet and romantic—sexy in a way that won’t gross you out or make you feel like a pervert (though you may, in truth, be a pervert anyway.) Couples could and should use this movie as foreplay. The MPAA practically demands it.
The Duke of Burgundy represents Peter Strickland’s play for A-list auteur status. His last film, 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio, was a sure-footed and often fascinating mood piece. But Burgundy improves on it in every way, refining the director’s (apparently) signature tone of cracked Leipzig kitsch and girding it with more resonate, relatable themes and a clearer sense of purpose. Along with Burgundy executive producer Ben Wheatley (a personal favorite of mine), Strickland is now on the list of exciting new British directors dabbling in cinematic areas I like to call “genre adjacent.” It’ll be exciting to see what he does next.
That’s it. Now start peeing on each other.