Writer/director Peter Strickland (“Berberian Sound Studio”) explores the power dynamics involved in a lesbian sadomasochistic relationship that exists in a utopian atmosphere of rural isolation. This is an erotic drama for adults. Leave “50 Shades of Grey” to the kiddies. This nuanced sexual tale of erotic BDSM topping from the bottom is tantalizing, titillating, and dirty in a way that only the human imagination can explore with such deviant romantic sophistication on the big screen without going full porn. Mistress/Slave. Yummy.
Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen plays Cynthia, a butterfly expert who resides alone in a lush country mansion somewhere in Europe. Cynthia’s full-time maid Evelyn (wantonly played by Chiara D’Anna) seems to take payment for her frequently spotty work, in staged punishments that her mistress Cynthia doles out with stern deportment and appropriately black fetish attire. Formal costume precision is required. So too is a proper attitude of distant attraction.
Evelyn may be marginal in performing her house chores, but she makes up for it in the bathroom, at the service of her full-bladdered mistress. A purposely-unwashed pair of Cynthia’s soiled panties gives cause for a human-toilet golden shower session behind closed doors that leaves Evelyn hungry for more, more, more, more toilet action in the future.
Strickland’s sensual visual touches of stylistic homage to softcore masters such as Jess Franco give the film a sustained sense of lush erotic and dramatic tension, but he allows the racy narrative to go flat. Evelyn’s outré desire for humiliation drives a lesbian relationship centered on fulfilling the couple's fetishistic desires.
Evelyn's submissive coquettish character gains more pleasure than her older dom Cynthia does from their scripted BDSM sessions together. Equality is not all it's cracked up to be.
The film’s hook rests with the couple’s bottom-topping paradigm, which proves to be the key to the women's complex sensual connection. Evelyn leaves specific handwritten instructions for Cynthia to fulfill. The submissive is calling the shots. Perhaps this is the secret to the recipe. This self-scripted method for Evelyn to achieve her desired fetishistic scenarios has intrinsic limits that Cynthia isn't able to fulfill, at least not yet.
Although it’s clear that Evelyn is working up to serving as a full-duty (#1 & #2 — shocking, I know) human-toilet to her more mature mistress, the filmmaker inexplicably reneges on the dirty motivation. What could have given the film a truly shocking aspect evaporates when romance deposes the fetishistic elements of the women’s unique bond. Rather than the specially designed toilet chair she requests, Evelyn has to settle for a trunk where she is imprisoned overnight at the end of her mistress's bed.
“The Duke of Burgundy,” with its perfectly disguised title, could serve as a compass-marker for other (more daring) filmmakers to follow in the footsteps of. Mainstream cinema and pornography continue to overlap. Where are the daring, transgressive filmmakers of the 21st century? No modern-day John Waters? What is wrong with the world?
Neither entirely frustrating nor satisfying, here is an enjoyable erotic film populated with only female characters. As such, "The Duke of Burgundy" affords the audience a much-needed break from Cinema's predominance of male influence, albeit from the director himself. It would be interesting to see how a more daring [female] filmmaker would follow the story’s fetishized elements toward their logical trajectories. Perhaps then Evelyn could achieve the transformation into a human-toilet that she desires. What then?
Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.