Peter Strickland’s latest film, The Duke of Burgundy, is an interesting one. Screened in competition at the British Film Festival under a wave of great reviews, it is a film very hard to categorise. I’ve seen it described as an erotic drama. It’s also been referred to as a sexual romance. I’ve a tendency to go with a black romantic comedy, albeit based on the sexual fetishes of a lesbian couple.
On the face of it, it concerns a sadomasochistic relationship between a dominant woman and her submissive lover. They live in a small community populated exclusively by women, who we are led to believe share similar sexual tendencies. They are all clearly well off, and none appear to work outside a few butterfly lectures here and there.
To label it as a film simply about fetish sex is to do it a disservice. Actually by the end of the film it is clearly more about the demands made by the desires of one person in a relationship, and the effect that has on the second party, especially as they grow distant from these demands and find them less appealing.
The soundtrack, provided by Cat’s Eyes, tweely pitches somewhere between Goldfrapp and Belle and Sebastian. With the constant references to butterflies I was repeatedly reminded of early 00s band Misty Dixon. This juxtaposition between what we see and what we hear is quite intelligent: it underlines the innocence of one party and her belief that this is normal behaviour, even though it is clearly a strain on her besotted lover. She is living in a dream world and the music, in that sense, is perfectly pitched. Plus it’s really lovely music, which helps.
The whole nature of the relationship is completely flipped from its initial portrayal, and by the end we see the surprising reality. This about-turn makes for some hilarious and at times heartbreaking scenes. Indeed, such is the detail in which we see the emotions and pain seen by one party, we barely see a glimpse of any of the sexual acts, usually having them implied behind closed doors or inferred from showing us the before and after shots. In this way, Strickland managed to avoid it becoming all about the sex and makes it a much greater film as a result.
In a post-50-Shades era the subject matter will no doubt turn a few heads. In many ways I hope readers of the 50 Shades series seek it out and are either disappointed or, more likely, pleasantly surprised.
Whilst it didn’t have the impact of Strickland’s previous film Berbarian Sound Studio, it was a highly satisfying, twisting and twisted tale that deserves a wide audience.
The Duke of Burgundy is released in UK cinemas in 2015.