TIFF capsule review: The Duke of Burgundy

What do you get when you combine Fassbinder and Giallo, add a dash of Brakhage, with a pinch of Lynch? You get Peter Strickland’s new film, The Duke of Burgundy.

The Duke of Burgundy expertly explores the politics and etiquette of sexual relationships in its BDSM homage to R.W. Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. When Evelyn moves into Cynthia’s home to act as a live-in maid, the two quickly embark on a sadomasochistic voyage that begins when Cynthia decides that Evelyn needs to be punished for not properly laundering her panties. From the very beginning, instead of offering his audience a fully voyeuristic revelry, Strickland opts for a more sophisticated approach in portraying the bizarre dynamics of their relationship with discretion. In the moment when their initial flirtations head beyond the point of no return, this act of punishment involving urination happens off screen. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that not only is Evelyn not a victim and choosing to be abused, but she is also in the position of control, and Cynthia’s act as the aggressor is but a pretence.

Opening with a credits sequence of fonts and freeze frames that appear to be lifted from a ’70s film, it is immediately apparent that Strickland’s eye for detail is astounding. The film is ablaze with earrings and brooches and skirts which are stunning accessories and garments, in their own right, but it is how he shoots them that is truly compelling: that cinched skirt a visual complement to the swaying of Cynthia’s hips to lure the viewer into symbiosis with Evelyn’s erotic fantasies. Moths and butterflies (the title, itself, referring to the species of butterflies that abound in Cynthia’s home: she is a lepidopterist) collide in a montage reminiscent of Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight.

Taking a cue from The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Strickland uses chamber drama structuring to create an isolated universe for the central relationship, and there is a noticeable absence of male characters, or even acknowledgement of males. For this reason, it is not quite accurate to call this “feminist” or “queer” cinema. Because there is no male counterpoint, gender is rendered irrelevant, and this becomes a film about two people realizing their fantasies and trying to please each other. Which is why The Duke of Burgundy effectively transcends those labels, and becomes the type of groundbreaking cinema that audiences should be seeing more of.