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Duke Of Burgundy, The
"Come for the kinky BDSM lesbian sex, leave with a profoundly touching love story" could've been a perfect alternate tagline for The Duke of Burgundy, writer/director Peter Strickland's hypnotic, haunting, emotionally engaging near-masterpiece of pure cinema. Beneath its uber-stylized art house veneer, with an emphasis on audiovisual stimulation over exposition and plot, and an aesthetic that harkens back to 60s French melodramas, The Duke of Burgundy is essentially a simple and therefore empathetic story about the fading love affair and one half of a couple's struggle to keep the passion burning.
After a gorgeous opening credits sequence that pays homage to the unironically wistful tones of 60s French cinema, Strickland invites the audience to peek into an intimate relationship between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a middle-aged professor who studies the subtle differences between moth species, and Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna), a seemingly meek and powerless young woman. When we're introduced to the BDSM relationship between Cynthia and Evelyn, we fall for the illusion that it's Cynthia who's in complete control, in a way that might make the audience believe that some of the abuse that Evelyn takes might not even be a hundred percent consensual.
During the day the couple spends together, Cynthia treats Evelyn like she's lower than dirt, ordering her around to do her bidding, and punishing her for the smallest imperfection. The day ends with an act that involves Cynthia "forcing" Evelyn to nearly choke on a certain bodily fluid. Thanks to Strickland's creative use of framing, the audience doesn't see the act, yet hear every detail. Honestly, I don't know which is worse.
The brilliance in the way Strickland structures his film relies on repeating the same scenes over and over again while adding new pieces of information. This way, the audience gradually becomes aware of the real power dynamic in the relationship. Our reaction to the couple constantly switches, from two women who play BDSM games for fun, to a loving relationship where one side has more power than the other, and eventually ending up with a revelation that we might have been completely wrong in the way we approached this story in the first place.
The surreal touches that Strickland infuses his film with, the imagery and sound of various moth species, how hard it is to pinpoint a time and place for the narrative, the lack of male characters, right down to the usage of mannequins in the background during the rare scenes where extras were required, all manage to draw the audience into the admittedly simple human story instead of pushing them out.
The Duke of Burgundy is one of the most beautiful and elegant-looking films you'll see in a long time. The 1080p transfer is pristine and full of life, and therefore deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can get your hands on.
At first, you might wonder why an art house indie would bother with a DTS-HD 7.1 mix. Even 5.1 mixes on a lot of art house or indie fare end up sounding like glorified stereo mixes. However, the full immersion of the subtle sound mix is essential in getting caught up in the film's unique world. In that case, this Blu-ray passes with flying colors.
Interview with Peter Strickland: In this 11-minute piece, the director talks about his approach to his film in an intimate and honest way.
Deleted Scenes: A whopping 44 minutes of deleted material with detailed text introduction from the director. Usually, deleted scenes are useless on a home video release, but this is a vital extra for fans.
Conduct Phase: This is an experimental short film about stray dogs that Strickland shot in 1996. It's only 8 minutes long, so it ends before it wears out its welcome.
Cat's Eyes: An avant-garde music video from the band that provided the film's score, as well as two songs.
We also get a Trailer and a Stills Gallery.
Yes, The Duke of Burgundy is full of sex acts that some people might find shocking, unsettling, and even disgusting. But Strickland's point is not to exploit the central relationship in the film for mere titillation, but to use the visual language of cinema to show that the way every individual expresses love is unique, which should be celebrated rather than judged. It's a film that will challenge a lot of people's preconceived notions of life and love, but isn't that what cinema really about?
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com