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Duke of Burgundy, The
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by Jay Seaver

"In which amateur entomology is the more conventional hobby."
5 stars

SCREENED AT FANTASTIC FEST 2014: It's tempting to interpret the characters' behavior in "The Duke of Burgundy" in terms of closets and shame; it's sort of the default for this period and would probably be a fascinating way to play it. Peter Strickland has other, potentially more striking directions to go instead, and certainly makes it memorable.

Every day, Evelyn (Chiara d'Anna) rides her bicycle to a mansion where she works as a maid for Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a demanding mistress who, like many women at the turn off the twentieth century, spends a great deal of her time studying insects. Any slow or substandard work and Evelyn will be punished, subject to Cynthia's strange sexual whims.

Of course, that doesn't tell the whole story; in fact, it is deliberately misleading. Strickland and his characters don't quite hide their true selves under multiple levels of artifice and role-play, but it will take some careful unraveling to reveal just who has what kind of power in the relationship. Strickland repeats scenes and sequences and escalates the situations without necessarily showing immediate cause and effect, and that's potentially important: Relationships and people may have a distinct life cycle just as insects do, and while some of those processes may seem strange to those user to something else, both their state at any point and progression may be completely natural.

Sidse Babett Knudsen gets the best chance to show this off; playing the older of the two leads, she becomes intriguing as the audience starts to suspect she has history and a list interest in game-playing because of it. For as much as Cynthia initially comes off as imperious, Knudsen is great at showing so much of what she does is a compromise. That's not so much the case with Chiara d'Anna as Evelyn, but she's fascinating in another way, portraying some seriously contrasting impulses in ways that can be both unnerving and funny, though without ever making Evelyn the butt of the joke. The way that they play off each other is fantastic, such that the all-female cast does not really need much more, although Fatma Mohamed has a great, funny little role in a scene or two.

Though the film is very much about Evelyn and Cynthia, Strickland presents it in an elaborate, surreal manner. The mania for entomology of a hundred years ago was a very real thing, and Strickland gives them featured appearances in scenes that are transfixing, even if their meaning isn't immediately obvious or they're illustrations disconnected from the rest of the movie. He'll frame and hold a shot for a few extra seconds to let an image sink in a little, generally letting things proceed at a leisurely pace and not having the soundtrack over-emphasize dramatic moments. As you might expect from the guy who made Berberian Sound Studio, the sound design is a match for the gorgeous visuals, and the opening credits are a wonderful tribute to the erotic art-house cinema of years gone by that it is largely inspired by, even if some effects rely on modern CGI.

It's odd and a specific sort of sexy enough that it might not be for everyone, but that could largely be said for "Berberian" as well. So far, Peter Strickland has made movies that career to technical and sexual fetishists, and I'm curious to see where his camera lands next.

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originally posted: 09/21/14 17:33:58
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2014 Fantastic Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 AFI Fest For more in the 2014 AFI Fest series, click here.

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  DVD: 29-Sep-2015


  DVD: 29-Sep-2015

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