Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio follow up ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ is a tantalising study of the power struggle between a sado-masochistic lesbian couple. The story focuses on their sexual role-play relationship, starting at an ambiguous point and continuing on until the cracks begin to show as inevitable diminishing returns develop. While the first act sets the seed and plays it straightforwardly, the second act completely subverts everything we’ve seen in a fascinating way. While we at first believe their bond is more organic, it’s revealed that a lot more is planned than we thought, and those boundaries continue to reveal themselves.
While their sex lives are quite unique, or rather niche to a certain community, it’s universally relatable to the demands, desires and generosity of the relationships in our own lives. What’s most notable about the film is the two tones it switches between. Sometimes it can be ominous and deeply sensual while it explores the ritualistic but tender fetishism, conjuring a tense atmosphere quite like this year’s Under The Skin or certain scenes of Mulholland Drive. This mostly derives from the mood setting music. But between those scenes it has an oddball sense of humour. It’s a grounded and dry humour, one where we’re laughing at them for their sexual quirks rather than with them. The film even has a perfume credit at the beginning, winking at us, while the rest of the film takes itself dead seriously. It’s a bizarre mix, but its consistency makes it the personality of the film even if it doesn’t always blend well together.
Although it will probably leave audiences mystified and confused, as it did me, it may also excite depending on how much you like art house films. Personally I enjoyed the originality of the film’s abstract tone. It was like an ancient, dark, sexual autumn. Peter Strickland commands all elements of filmmaking here to create this one-of-a-kind atmosphere. The color palate is that of autumn, the art direction creates an old mansion that blends with the woods surrounding it, the editing is abstract, repetitious, and hypnotic, and the music embodies all of these aurally. There are lots of details that Strickland fills each frame with that make this film the stimulating puzzle it is. It’s very sexual. There are no men in the film. If a man were to pop up it would somehow disrupt everything.
The dream sequence near the end is beautiful though, with amazing cinematography, but what was once daring and sexually charged, becomes stifling for both who soon lose patience.
It’s a cold film, one concerned with artificial superficialities rather than depth and emotion, best illustrated when Knudsen’s character begins to wear loose fitted pyjamas rather than alluring clothing. As such, the story and characters are told entirely through their sex and foreplay rather than anything else. However, it’s weak in the abstract moments. It should have at least committed to either of its two dark and light tones. There’s a lot to admire here, especially with the bold performances, and it does raise interesting ideas about the dynamics of control in relationships and sexual satisfactions.
The Duke of Burgundy gets a 7.2/10.