The Duke Of Burgundy, film review: Peter Strickland's fetish drama is the stuff of fantasy

(18) Dir. Peter Strickland; Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D'Anna, 104mins
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The Independent Culture

The witty and wonderfully eccentric third feature by the British writer-director Peter Strickland is set in a soft-focus, out-of-time, mitteleuropean world that might seem familiar to fans of 1970s Euro arthouse-sexpoitation movies by film-makers such as Jesus Franco, Walerian Borowczyk and Radley Metzger, but has peccadilloes and peculiarities all of its own. It's a world populated only by women, for example, in which the work of specialised bondage-furniture-makers is in heavy demand, and talks at the local Entomology Institute are regularly sold out.

In between lectures, lepidopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her lover Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) enact S&M role-playing games in which Cynthia is the decadent mistress of their opulent mansion, and Evelyn is the servant whose work is never quite up to scratch and who must accordingly be punished in various devious and filthy ways. But while Cynthia would appear to be on top, the power dynamics within their relationship are chaotic and unstable. Neither is entirely comfortable in their role; reality – or what passes for it in a Strickland film – keeps on impinging on their fantasies, and their carefully choreographed scenarios keep on toppling into absurdism.

Strickland's film is rich, pleasurable and multi-layered – to last week's big S&M drama, Fifty Shades of Grey, what an expensive black forest gateau is to a mass-produced vanilla slice. But while it's shot with an eye for the avant-garde and an obsessive, fetishistic attention to the detail, texture and manner of the Seventies films whose aesthetic he has borrowed, it's far more than a pastiche or mere stylistic exercise. In fact, in the aestheticised, isolating world in which they live, Cynthia and Evelyn's heartfelt efforts to please and to reach one another become unexpectedly moving.