You’d be forgiven for thinking that The Duke of Burgundy – a film essentially about a lesbian couple’s experimentations with BDSM – would stray towards the exploitative. But despite the subject matter, writer/director Peter Strickland downplays the erotic aspects of the film to emphasis an abstract evocation of the anxieties inherent in a long-term relationship. Living in a world entirely absent men, Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) and Cynthia’s (Sidse Babett Knudsen’s) romance is complicated by the intricacies of roleplay, power dynamics and honesty in a way that mirrors real life without ever feeling entirely real.
The surreal atmosphere is – particularly in the wake of Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio – undeniably deliberate, and often entrancing. Like Sound Studio – an elaborate, unnerving giallo-homage – The Duke of Burgundy often disappears into aesthetic (and sexual) fetishism, so tolerance for enigmatic dream sequences is a condition of entry.
The film is indebted to Emmanuelle and its Eurotica ilk, but trades dubious sexual politics and copious nudity for something more artistic and intellectual. Those stumbling across it on late-night Netflix for the licentious promise of its synopsis might be disappointed, but those content to reflect upon relationship struggles and give themselves to its textural pleasures will find much to enjoy.