The pastiche exterior and S&M teasing are the enticing bits, the coy titillations to peak your interest and rope you in. Then there’s the bait-and-switch as the power struggle reveals numerous complications and eventually settles into a quieter examination of the sacrifices and struggles involved in sustaining a long-term relationship.
The Duke of Burgundy is a beautiful film in every way, from the costumes to the sets to the thematic elements and performances. Everything about it works, and it all works at an optimal level. It also smartly keeps the eroticism at a low boil, never indulging in potentially exploitative nudity or in shock-value water sports. We know these things are going on, and routinely, but it’s merely a framing device to go further in its explorations of what keeps a couple together.
We meet Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) first, and the first half of the film is glimpsed through her prism, as she’s riding a bike towards a secluded estate. She is the picture of timid and frail European schoolgirl beauty. We think she possesses very little power or sway in this relationship as Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudse) is older, the owner of the house, potentially her employer, and an exacting mistress. It isn’t until roughly the halfway point that we realize just what the truth is.
Evelyn and Cynthia recreate the same day every day, with Evelyn having created the script that must be followed precisely. The S&M mind games, water sports, and humiliations are all based upon Evelyn’s wants and needs, and Cynthia clearly struggles in consistently providing them. These two women obviously love and care for each other a great deal, but one partner is sacrificing herself and her own needs to make the other happy. Trouble is looming and about to hit them with the blunt force of a natural disaster.
It’s extraordinary how something that felt so palpably strange and possibly on the verge of erotic exploitation is so easily redressed as merely a fact of life as it exists for this couple. S&M is a part of their daily life because one partner needs and demands it, and the other recognizes that even though it causes her discomfort sometimes you have to just suck it up and do the thing to make your partner happy. The eventual revolt feels like a natural outgrowth as one partner is sucking up all of the attention and making all of the demands, and the precarious balance that any relationship rests upon is clearly tipping too far one way.
It is here that The Duke of Burgundy proceeds to dig deeper into its material, and the window-dressing of erotic cinema is revealed as just that. These two could just as easily be fighting over the pets, or how one of them loves to go to some dive-joint for brunch every weekend and the other just wants to sleep in and be lazy. Arguments like these, the banalities of life and the friction involved in any two people occupying close quarters, happen with more frequency and urgency in the latter half. Chiara D’Anna makes a complaint about Knudsen’s chewing on nuts too loudly sound like a howling cry of anyone who’s ever snapped at their lover over some banal infraction while really stewing about a deeper problem.
It isn’t just Peter Strickland’s direction that sells this material, but his two lead actresses who deliver performances that feel fully realized and lived in. Our first introductions to them and their dynamic make it seem outré, but the longer we’re with them then the more we can see ourselves reflected in them. They spar, they reconcile, they try to meet each other half way, or go too far in the other direction to stay together and do the hard job of maintaining and strengthening intimacy with each other. Who knows if these two will stick it out for the long haul, but by the end we understand just what they have and why they fight to keep it together. There’s an air of tragedy here, but also one of burning intimacy and a desire to surpass limitations.